People talk through a fence near a banner, declaring the participation at the indefinite nationwide teachers' pay strike, at the Primary School number 68 in Warsaw, Poland, on Monday, April 8, 2019. Majority of Poland's school and kindergarten teachers went on strike after talks about their payment with the government failed. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Polish teachers go on strike over pay, canceling classes

April 08, 2019 - 11:07 am

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Teachers in Poland went on an indefinite nationwide strike Monday to demand higher pay, after days of talks with the government failed to meet the demands of a majority of teachers' unions.

The strike by school and kindergarten teachers is the first such widespread action by Poland's chronically underpaid educators since 1993, when exams for high school graduation had to be canceled in many schools.

It comes at a sensitive time, just days before crucial end-of-school exams in primary and middle schools, and weeks ahead of this year's matriculation exams for high school. It also comes in the middle of campaigning for the European Parliament elections in May that are key for Poland's right-wing government.

Warsaw city officials said about 80% of schools were closed on Monday. Preliminary figures from other regions showed that up to 90% of schools were affected in some areas, although the Education Ministry said 48.5% of schools nationwide were on strike at noon.

Poland has almost 400,000 teachers and some 4.5 million students.

The go-ahead for the protest was given by the main teachers unions, the ZNP, after last-ditch talks with the government failed Sunday night. Only the small pro-government Solidarity union accepted the government's proposals and was not on strike.

The teachers were partly spurred into action by anger that the conservative government, as part of its election campaign, has offered financial boosts to families, businesses and to farmers for their pigs and cows but not to the education sector.

Slawomir Wittkowicz, head of the Trade Unions Forum, said "in the past two weeks, money has been found for everyone, not only for humans, but there is no money for the teachers."

The unions originally demanded monthly raises of 1,000 zlotys ($260) and improvements to the salary system. Negotiators said they were willing to accept a compromise but found the government's offer unacceptable.

Slawomir Broniarz, head of the ZNP, said the proposals were far below expectations and boiled down to more working hours for teachers.

The government argued it had been raising teachers' earnings since 2018 and would speed up that process and increase salaries, while at the same time increasing teachers' class hours to 24 hours a week from the current 18 hours.

Protesting educators interviewed on private TVN24 said the strike is not only for pay but also for their dignity, because they cannot support their families.

Teachers' average net monthly earnings range from 1,800 zlotys to 3,000 zlotys ($470 to $780). They get some additional pay for being in charge of a specific class.

Reactions among parents ranged from supportive and understanding to disappointment, especially since the strike comes so close to crucial tests.

"I absolutely support their strike. They are really earning peanuts for a job that involves responsibility and knowledge," said Tomasz Pietka, father of a 4th-grader in Warsaw.

Deputy Prime Minister Beata Szydlo appealed Monday for renewed talks and for teachers to consider the welfare of students facing exams.

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