Pay dispute continues in education

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In spring and autumn 2004, trade unions in the Romanian education sector organised protest actions to support demands for a staged doubling of wages by the end of the year. By October, only a temporary compromise has been reached with the government, and consultations are being held to draw up a new pay law for education staff and to establish the calendar of future wage increases.

Pay-related claims by Romanian teachers are long-standing and have provoked two major conflicts in the past decade. The protests proved futile, as the government was not induced to meet the trade unions’ demands. The last such conflict, in 1998-9, resulted in a general strike by teachers that lasted over two weeks. Teachers were demanding that the government should apply the letter of the relevant pay legislation and the Teachers’ Statute, thus allowing more consistent pay rises.

Protests in spring 2004

In spring 2004, employees in the education sector resumed protest action (RO0405101N), declaring that this time they were determined to remain steadfast in reaching their goals and threatening to call a general strike in education. On 19 May, by passing Emergency Ordinance no. 38, the government approved a pay rise for teachers of 5% from May 2004 and an additional 6% from October 2004. Nevertheless, on 26 May the Federation of Free Trade Unions in the Education Sector (Federaţia Sindicatelor Libere din Învăţământ, FSLI) and the Spiru Haret Federation (Federaţia Spiru Haret) staged a two-hour warning strike. Their protest continued on 2 June, with a meeting in Bucharest rallying several thousand people from 38 counties and the capital. The strikers demanded a pay rise for all teaching staff and funds for financing education of up to 6% of gross domestic product (GDP). On this second point, the strikers stated they had already gathered 200,000 signatures on a proposal for a legislative initiative - double the minimum required for such a move

Although not directly involved in the movement, the other two representative trade union federations in the education sector - the Alma Mater Federation (Federaţia Alma Mater), representing the interests of teaching staff in higher education. and the Federation of National Education (Federaţia Educaţiei Naţionale, FEN) - declared that, while holding negotiations with the government, they nonetheless supported their fellow teachers.

Summer negotiations

Concluding that the government was delaying the resolution of their claims, and given that a new law on pay in education had still not been passed, the four representative trade unions in the education sector signed a joint set of demands in summer 2004 and repeatedly declared that they intended to call a general strike. Their main demands were:

  • a budget allocated for education of a minimum 6% of GDP, to modernise the education system (ie in terms of material resources) and improve learning and teaching conditions in schools; and
  • a new pay law stipulating a doubling of wages for the entire teaching staff (including auxiliary personnel, who had been excluded from the pay rise approved by the government in May) in two stages - a minimum of 50% from October 2004 and the remaining 50% from January 2005.

If their claims remained unmet, the unions planned a calendar of protest actions, including boycotting the start of the school year, a meeting and protest march on 5 October (International Education Day) and a general strike in education beginning on 11 October.

Several rounds of negotiations were held during summer 2004. The government stood by its initial offer for quite some time - a 6% pay rise from 1 October 2004, applicable to all employees in the education system covered by the state budget - but was then forced to increase its offer on several occasions. In August 2004, the government offered, as an initial step, to apply the provisions in the Teachers’ Statute and consequently to grant a pay increase of 11.5%. On 2 September, it declared that its final offer was a 16% increase, but excluding non-teaching staff.

Pressure on the government to take action was exerted not only by the trade unions but also by parliament. In July 2004, parliament amended the Education Law (no. 84/1995). The new provisions stipulated a gradual increase in budgetary allowances for education, so that by 2007 funding would reach 6% of GDP, in line with European Union norms. In the same month, the Education Committee (Comisia de Învăţământ) of the Chamber of Deputies (Camera Deputaţilor) - one of the two chambers of the Romanian parliament - submitted an open letter to the Prime Minister requesting a 25% pay increase for teachers from October 2004, instead of the 6% stipulated in the Emergency Ordinance approved by the government in May (see above). The additional financing for this pay increase was estimated at around ROL 3,000 billion (approximately EUR 73 million), which could be obtained by budgetary rectification. Moreover, if the government agreed to grant a further pay rise of 50% starting January 2005, education could be allocated approximately 5% of GDP in 2005.

On 25 August, the Education Committee proposed amending Emergency Ordinance no. 38/2004, so as to increase teachers’ wages by 25% from 1 October 2004 and by an additional 40% from 1 January 2005. The amendment was to have been submitted for debate in the two chambers of parliament by an emergency procedure, but the government continued to negotiate with trade unions on a different, lower pay-rise proposal.

On 14 September, on the evening before the start of the new school year, the government came up with a new and improved proposal: an average pay increase of 27%, differentiated according to length of service and educational background. The proposal was ultimately accepted by three of the four union federations concerned - Federaţia Spiru Haret, Federaţia Alma Mater and FEN.

Protest actions continue

The fourth union federation, FSLI, refused to sign the agreement, maintaining its initial demand for wages to be doubled. FSLI is the largest trade union organisation in the sector, with more than 170,000 members (approximately half the total number of employees in education) and represents employees in pre-university education, being affiliated to the Confederation of Democratic Trade Unions in Romania (Confederaţia Sindicatelor Democratice din România, CSDR), one of the five nationally representative trade union organisations in Romania (RO0307101F).

In accordance with the initial calendar of protests, the start of the school year was boycotted in many schools across the country, and protest meetings were held in large cities. According to the Ministry of Education and Research (Ministerul Educaţiei şi Cercetării, MEdC), 244 schools were closed, but trade unions claimed that the actual figure was much higher.

On 5 October, FSLI organised a meeting in the capital, followed by a protest march to the government offices. The demonstration rallied around 8,000-11,000 people, of whom 4,500 were from outside Bucharest. The demonstration had the support of the other trade union federations in the education sector, especially of their affiliated organisations representing the interests of non-teaching staff, who were recipients of the smallest pay increase. Also, Cartel Alfa and other nationally representative trade union confederations sent messages of support and solidarity with the demonstrators.

The general strike in education, set to start on 11 October, was not staged.

Consultations continue, aimed at drawing up the draft pay law. This draft, as well as a calendar of future pay increases, is due to be finalised by the end of November. According to statements by trade union representatives, a consensus has already been reached on 80%-85% of the draft text.

Commentary

The pay increase demanded by teachers' unions has not been obtained, but for the first time in 14 years average wages in education are now higher than the national economy average (roughly speaking, by around 24%). By the end of 2004, teaching staff will have obtained a real average pay rise of 31%. Nonetheless, the absolute level of the net monthly average wage is still less than EUR 200. Trade unions say low salaries are to blame for the movement of teaching staff with genuine teaching skills to other sectors offering higher salaries, for the ageing teaching staff population, and for the large number of personnel lacking adequate qualifications.

In summer 2004, the tenure examinations in education left 20,000 positions still vacant and it became necessary to fill them with people lacking proper qualifications or teachers with a low grading. Teachers of computer technology and English are in very short supply, as they are offered much higher wages in other sectors.

Even the government admits that current wage levels are still not enticing enough to attract qualified personnel, nor do they do justice to the teachers' work. In the course of negotiations however, the government proved extremely unwilling to meet teachers’ demands, declaring that it will continue to observe the provision in an agreement concluded with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whereby expenditure on wages in the entire state budgetary system will not exceed a ceiling of 5% of GDP. Faced with concerted pay-related claims coming from several sectors (RO0409102F and RO0410101N), the Prime Minister has declared that he might propose a referendum 'for the people to decide which sector should be allocated more funds from the budget'.

Teachers are a professional category with a strong civic conscience that prevents them from going to extremes in order to have their grievances resolved, as this would affect the schooling of the young - consequently an indefinite strike seems unlikely. Nonetheless, they have stated their determination to resume protest actions to reach their goal and everything depends on the result of the negotiations with the government. (Diana Preda, Institute of National Economy)

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