Russian Teacher Strikes and 'Sedition'
By Stephen Wilson
(Moscow, Russia) - 'The situation in education is catastrophic. Many teachers are attempting to get to grips with this problem, but they (officials) don't listen to us', gently, softly and articulately declared teacher of Russian and literature, Vsevolod Lukhovitsky, chairman of the union 'teacher'. And the word disaster might not seem so melodramatic when we witness what is happening all around us in Russia. For teachers speak of the merging of schools leading to closures bringing not only redundancies (firings), but a decline in the quality of education, longer hours coupled with over 50% cut in their real salaries, unpaid salaries, growing red-tape and a growing number of unfair dismissal cases.
It is suffice to point to just one example which is by no means untypical. When I asked a lecturer David Wansbrough whether a full time teacher at the Pedagogical Institute at Moscow State University obtains the standard salary of 30,000 rubles, he answered, 'You must be joking! They get only 15,000 rubles. There has been a mass exodus of staff from this institute of about 40% '. After consulting some teachers at the Institute of Foreign Languages within the university and other institutes, I found an identical situation. As staff are made either redundant or leave, the increased burden is shouldered by the remaining staff rendering them exhausted.
One of the biggest grievances is unpaid salaries. Just as in the early
1990's, payment of salaries are being delayed again. In the Murmansk region of Russia as well as in Siberia's Zabaikalsky region, teachers complain they still have not been paid their salaries.
How are teachers reacting to this crisis? Not all of them are bearing the brunt with stoic patience. For instance, Second City Teacher previously mentioned the strike of 60 teachers in the Zabaikalsky region. There have been many meetings, pickets and demonstrations in Moscow.
Attempts have been made to unite with medical workers who seem
to be experiencing many identical problems. There appears to be
a natural affinity between those two caring professions. Since
March the 24th, doctors in Moscow at some clinics have embarked
on what has been labelled 'an Italian strike'. In fact, the word
Italianize has become synonymous with the word 'to go on strike'.
What is meant by Italian strike? It does not imply a spontaneous
wild dropping of tools by desperados but a carefully organised,
disciplined and planned strike. The strikers still work according to
carefully planned instructions and demand the same observation of
rules from employers. The Siberian teachers are arguing that by
the law of the Russian Federation their strike is perfectly within
the framework of the law. It is the employers, not the teachers who
are violating the laws. It is not only Italian strikes which are being
deployed. The medical workers have resorted to the more extreme
methods of embarking on hunger strikes. This method has often
worked in the past. However, medical workers can't count on any
sympathy strikes from their long suffering fellow teachers. Sympathy strikes are strictly forbidden by the Law of the Russian Federation.
It is important to point out that teachers only with great reluctance, resort to going on strike. Seeing the ineffectiveness of simply going on demonstrations, Vsevolod Lukhovitsky is attempting to organise
a special public assembly of teachers which will act as the main
voice of teachers in Russia. They intend to constructively debate,
discuss and then formulate a list of main demands which they will
then present to educational officials for negotiation. The conference
is intended to begin on 26th April. 'If about 150-200 teachers, despite opposition, come and are not afraid to speak, we will found a working group which will try, with concrete steps, to prove their legitimacy', states Lukhovitsky.
The newpaper Novaya gazetta is fully supporting and publicising this event under the slogan, 'Dialogue instead of Demonstrations'.
But how have education officials reacted to this initiative? They
regard this as an act of 'sedition'! It is with a 'how dare you attempt to organise such an authoritative voice.' In many ways it echoes the reaction of health officials who are labelling the doctors strike as 'selfish actions taken as a political provocation'.
Lukhovitsky claims, 'We continue to insist that negotiations, and
explanations are more productive than pickets and demonstrations.'
But the problem is that the educational officials are not listening. They are not prepared to meet them. In deed, when journalists and union representatives invited officials to an open round table to discuss their grievances, not a single local educational official turned up. The problem is that the local head of education, Isaac Kalin, won't meet them and remains arrogantly aloof. This not because he is in anyway shy or reserved or too busy, but intransient. Alas, implacable! It is difficult to imagine him meeting and jokingly suggesting to teachers that they marry rich husbands to resolve their problems.
In his eyes, officials, not opinions, run schools. And teachers don't
have the right to opinions never mind, organising special conferences.
One of the main demands which union representatives will make at the assembly will be to keep teaching hours to no more than 30 hours and that pay increases should be in line with Putin's promised
May 2012 promises where he intended to double the salary of
teachers all over Russia regardless of which region of Russia a teacher comes from. Any pay increases should not be based on increased hours of teaching or firing staff. It is worth also recalling that Putin also promised to increase the salaries of doctors 200% by 2018. Some strikers are hoping that Putin, the good Tsar, might step in to reprimand and rectify things. In order not to provoke the authorities too much, strikers are insisting they are 'apolitical'. In the past, on some occasions, Putin has intervened to support the strikers at some car factories. However, future perspectives suggest a widespread increase of strikes over wage arrears, mass redundancies, not to mention severe cuts in salaries. A recent survey by Levada found that 9% of current Russian workers are not being paid on time, while 15% expect future delays!
However, the May 2012 promises did not foresee such a severe
economic crisis or the war in Ukraine. This might explain why the
press secretary Dmitry Peskov stated that 'adjustments' have to
be made. What kind of adjustments they would be, he refused to clarify, or more likely, didn't know. The government might not even have worked out a clear cut road map of what to do. Putin appears to be staying silent. 'Silence is golden', says a Russian proverb, so Putin is remaining as silent as a partisan. But teachers can't afford to remain silent. The union ' Teacher', states they have been attempting to obtain a building for this conference. They still have not found one.
Another problem is that the newspaper which sympathises and
supports the teachers, Novaya Gazeta, is set to cease operations
just before the May Holidays. It's main sponsors are thought to have been scared away from continuing to fund the paper. This represents a major drawback as Novaya Gazeta is one of the few newpapers which takes up the cases of unfairly treated and dismissed teachers! Given the immense obstacles which
teachers, medical workers and journalists are facing, they can be
forgiven for praying for miracles.