Most of education staff joined strike for better pay

Ljubljana/Maribor – Roughly 40,000 of some 50,000 staff working in schools, kindergartens and higher education institutions staged a general strike on Wednesday that their trade union says affected half a million people in the country in one way or another.

Branimir Štrukelj, the head of the teachers union SVIZ, said the strike was held at a total of 652 institutions across the country, which is more than initially announced.

SVIZ data shows about 11,000 children turned up at kindergartens and schools today, based on which Štrukelj said the union assumed the parents had understanding for the strike.

Given that 86,000 children are enrolled in kindergartens, 193,000 in primaries and 73,000 in secondary schools, Štrukelj said along with the parents and those on strike the industrial action “touched” half a million people.

No incidents were reported and the children who were sent to kindergartens or schools were properly taken care off, Štrukelj told reporters in the afternoon.

The staff on strike demand higher wages as well as bonuses for extra work and exposure to virus during the Covid-19 epidemic. They demand tackling disparities resulting from rises secured by other groups of public sector employees.

On the eve of the strike, Education Minister Simona Kustec said they were willing to negotiate systemic solutions and reform of the public sector wage system with the unions, but the government was committed not to take on additional systemic fiscal burdens ahead of the 24 April election.

SVIZ was upset by the announcement, considering the minister had not responded to their strike demands for a year, said Štrukelj. They expect an invitation for talks on their demands from her on Thursday.

The ministry responded by sending out an invitation to all unions representing staff in education for talks on open issues. The ministry said the talks were planned for Tuesday.

The SVIZ strike committee will decide on further steps on Monday, but Štrukelj said the strike could end only with a strike agreement with the government and implementation of their demands.

Gorazd Kovačič, the head of the Trade Union of Higher Education, said the first independent strike in the higher education was a success with the staff enjoying the support of the students and the leaderships of the institutions.

“We demand normal working conditions, an end to the wage injustices done to particular occupational groups. We aren’t asking for privileges, for being extracted from the wage system,” he said, referring to doctors’ demanding a separate wage system.

“We only demand equality with others and that workers should not have to finance their working conditions out of their own pockets,” Kovačič told reporters after the strike was over.

Their demands include adjusting wages to inflation and reforming the wage brackets so that the lowest earnings are raised to the minimum wage. “The latter has already reached the 24th wage bracket but it will reach even higher in the coming years as a result of high inflation,” said unionist Marija Javornik.

A large majority of higher education staff joined in the strike. “Virtually the whole University of Maribor ground to a halt, as did collectively many members of the universities of Ljubljana and Primorska” and many individuals at other colleges, said Kovačič.

Both him and Štrukelj condemned as manipulation the release of data on Tuesday on 50 highest gross salaries paid out in education in December, which they said were untruthful with the highest sums including back pay.

On strike today were also most members of the OSO – KS 90 trade union, which mostly represents kindergarten staff and the lowest paid staff in the education sector, the so-called J group, according to executive secretary Ana Jakopič.

The unionists as well as staff and headteachers demanded that staff get paid for the day they were on strike, arguing the employer was violating previously agreed commitments.

Similarly, headteachers at primary and secondary schools said the strike would not have gone ahead if the Education Ministry suitably communicated with them.

The institutions that did not join the strike include the education centres in Nova Gorica and Škofja Loka. Data from the Kindergartens’ Association shows that 80% of the kindergarten teams were on strike as about 7% joined the action silently and about 7% opted out of strike.

Solidarity with the striking staff has also been expressed by the health and social care union and the Pergam association of public sector trade unions. They blame the strike on the government and its unsuitable attitude to workers on strike.