Saturday, March 21, 2015

Siberian Teachers on Strike!

By Stephen Wilson

Moscow, Russia - 'We are not attempting to destabilise the situation. We simply want people to finally pay attention to us. And not just in charity. We exist!

And we work fairly. We don't understand, why we have such low pay. For example, a senior teacher who has worked for 25 years with a bigger workload gets 22,000 rubles (366%) a month! How can you live on such money?' declares the anguished and frustrated voice of one teacher who has not been paid for 3 months. The unnamed teacher is just one of the sixty teachers who have recently embarked on a strike to pressurise the government into paying their wage arrears.

The teachers are from schools in the Siberian region  of Zabaikalsk. The teachers are at pains to point out they are not 'on strike' or out to 'subvert anything'. They just want people to pay them what they are due!  For example, Zhanna Komendantova , a primary teacher at Gymnasium Number 9, states, 'We just want to draw the attention of the federal authorities to our plight ... We have not been paid since the beginning of 2014. We are not on strike, but have stopped work in accordance to article 142, of the labour code which guarantees our right to self defense. We are strictly acting within the parameters of the law and are acting in a responsible way before our students.'

The protesters don't sound like militants but people driven to the verge of despair. Some protesters would prefer to call the strike 'an extended school holiday for students...'.

Under Russian law, if the school authorities don't pay teachers for 15 days following the appropriate pay day, teachers can legally go on strike.

The Russian Ministry of Education  and Science acknowledges they owe teachers wages and urgent action is long overdue. They even claim that in general teachers are currently owed 153.24 million rubles. It is not only teachers who are owed money. According to Maxim Topolim, the Minister of Labour and Social Protection, wage arrears have shot up from 2 milliard rubles in January 2015 to 3 billion rubles at present.

Why is this still such a grave problem ? Some people simply blame 'the new difficult times'. The Regional Minister of Education and Science promised that teachers would immediately obtain their February salaries and that they would soon be paid the money they are owed over the last three months. He explained, 'We have to understand that the whole country has found itself in dire socio-economic and geopolitical straits. Society, professional community and government of all levels have to combine their efforts to endure this difficult period with dignity.' The teachers were not convinced by those words. They have heard so many promises in the past which have been broken time and time again. In fact, some teachers are hoping that President Putin, 'the good tsar', will step in to sort things out. But the cause of the teachers'  plight is not fully attributable to the mismanagement or indifference of local officials. It may even begin at the top! The facts are that the Russian government's plans are to drastically cut state expenditure by 10 %. The central government has cut central and local budgets to such an extent that not only are teachers at school not being paid but some students at Moscow universities have not obtained their grants.

The latest strike certainly conforms to a changed pattern in labour protests first noted by a 2014 survey by the Institute of Social and Labour rights'. The survey revealed that while in 2012 many workers could live without pay for up to five months, in 2014 the period of waiting had decreased to approximately 3-4 months. Teachers are becoming more and more impatient. Nevertheless, this action is unprecedented.

It is the first mass teachers' strike since 2004! The strikers are also members of a trade union. The last time a major teachers' strike erupted was in 2004 within the Chitinskoi region. Teachers from 26 schools located in three rural areas stopped working as a protest against unpaid wages which had reached a staggering 40 million rubles!

Of course, the significance of this strike has generally been ignored by the Russian mass media or even written off as 'an extended holiday 'as the strike happened to coincide with the school holidays.' Nevertheless, the problem of wage arrears is hardly confined to Zabaikalsk and encompasses many regions of Russia.

Future perspectives suggest teachers' strikes won't just fizzle
out but surface again and again unless wages are paid on time.

This action may just be the start!

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