Dispute erupts in Flemish education sector

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Teachers in the Flemish education system went on strike for three days in October 2001. The trade unions involved were protesting against the plan of the Flemish Minister of Education, Marleen Vanderpoorten, to increase the early retirement age for teachers from 55 to 58 years. Her stated aim is to address teacher shortages

On 5, 25 and 26 October 2001, teachers in Flemish nursery, primary and secondary education went on strike. The reason was the unanimous decision of the Flemish regional government in September 2001 to raise the early retirement age for teachers from 55 to 58 years. The increase in the retirement age is aimed at reducing the current teacher shortage. The Liberal Minister of Education and Training, Marleen Vanderpoorten, was mandated by the Flemish government to negotiate the terms and conditions of the increased early retirement age with the trade unions. However, various sets of negotiations broke down, resulting in the strike action by the teachers' trade unions.

Background

The current rule allowing teachers to retire early at the age of 55 dates from a time when the labour market for teaching staff was completely different than it is today. In the 1980s, there was a surplus of teachers. Young, often freshly qualified, teachers therefore found it difficult to find a job. In order to contain this oversupply, older teachers were encouraged to take early retirement. To this end, the early retirement option at 55 years was introduced. It was thus an employment measure. Teachers who made way for younger colleagues in this way could count on a monthly 'reduced salary' payment - a financial concession to bridge the gap between early retirement and compulsory retirement age.

Over the years, the temporary early retirement measure took on a permanent character. In addition, as time went by, more teachers took the decision to end their careers early at the age of 55. This is mainly due to the stressful nature of the job - it is not without reason that teaching staff are often used as examples to illustrate the 'burn-out' phenomenon. Over time, the reduced early retirement age originally conceived as an employment measure has changed into a social measure in practice.

Trade union response

The four teaching unions involved responded indignantly to the decision of the Flemish government announced in September. The Free Trade Union of Civil Servants (Syndicat libre de la Fonction Publique/Vrij Syndicaat voor het Openbaar Ambt, SLFP/VSOA), the Christian Education Federation (Christelijke Onderwijscentrale, COC), the Christian Teachers' Union (Christelijk Onderwijzers Verbond, COV) and the socialist General Confederation of Public Services (Centrale Générale des Services Publics/Algemene Centrale der Openbare Diensten, CGSP/ACOD) formed a common front and announced various actions. The measure that the Flemish government is taking is unacceptable to the teaching unions. The decision is seen as a violation of the current (sixth) collective agreement for the Flemish education sector, agreed in the spring of 2001. No changes were made to the retirement options in this agreement.

The way in which the decision was taken, unilaterally and without consultation with the unions, has also been criticised. According to Anne Marie De Groen of the liberal SLFP/VSOA, the fact that the unions were invited only to negotiate the conditions of implementation of the decision could be called a 'flagrant erosion' of social dialogue.

Alternative measures

During the various rounds of negotiations over implementation of the increased early retirement age, the trade union united front put forward many alternative measures to address the teacher shortage. The preservation of the current early retirement age and making the teaching profession more attractive were central to these alternatives, which were as follows:

  • increasing the influx. In order to bring an end to the teacher shortage, the influx of new teachers must be increased. This can be achieved by making the profession more attractive. Items to be considered are better pay, better demarcation of the job, lower work pressure and the possibility for teachers who have had enough to retire;
  • calling on the 'hidden reserve'. Over the past 20 years, large numbers of freshly qualified teachers have found alternative work in the private sector in the absence of jobs in education. The intention should be to offer these people the opportunity to take a job in education, subject to additional training and guidance. In calculating their years of service, their work done in other sectors must be entirely or partially taken into account; and
  • providing a financial stimulus for the over 55s. The preservation of the current early retirement rule is seen as essential. Nevertheless, extra financial stimuli could be developed for teachers who want to carry on working after their 55th birthday.

For Minister Vanderpoorten, however, keeping the existing system of early retirement was ruled out. She put forward an alternative proposal whereby teaching staff would receive a career credit (ie an addition to their employment history for the purposes of calculating retirement age etc) of one year - plus an extra half-year for the over-52s - in exchange for abolishing early retirement at 55. This was not enough for the unions, which argued for two extra years of career credit for the over-46s. According to the unions, more has to be done for teachers who are currently aged between 46 and 54. The two extra years of career credit (bringing the total to three) would still make it possible for them to end their careers at the age of 55.

Despite the fact that a solution seemed to be in the making at one stage, the negotiations ultimately broke down and the parties again hardened their positions. Minister Vanderpoorten declared the negotiations 'closed', even though no agreement had been reached, and the unions organised their next strike days.

Dispute divides coalition

Despite the fact that the increase in the early retirement age was a unanimous decision of the Flemish government, the course of the dispute has divided the parties involved. The coalition partners, except for the Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Vlaamse en Liberale Demokraten, VLD) to which she belongs, put the Minister of Education and Training under considerable pressure to re-enter negotiations. The minister refused, however, arguing that the negotiations had been formally closed, even if there had been no agreement. At the end of October, the dispute had reached complete deadlock.

After the Flemish government cabinet meeting on 26 October, where the teachers' dispute was on the agenda, Minister-President Patrick Dewael (VLD) announced that he would explore together with the minister concerned 'all avenues that could lead to a solution to the conflict'. It seems that the parties concerned would use the autumn half-term break to consider the further progress of this affair.

Commentary

For many years, many organisations and institutions - including the trade unions, the Flemish Economic and Social Council (Sociaal Economische Raad voor Vlaanderen, SERV), the Flemish Economic Alliance (Vlaams Economisch Verbond,VEV) employers' organisation and the Flemish Service for Employment and Vocational Training (Vlaamse Dienst voor Arbeidsbemiddeling,VDAB) - warned about the coming staff shortages in teaching. The problem was, however, always ignored by politicians.

The timing of the Flemish government and the education minister in announcing the increased early retirement age for teachers raises questions. Not everyone is convinced that reducing the teacher shortage was the first concern of the Flemish government. Some trade unionists allege that the recent budget difficulties of the Flemish government lie at the basis of this decision.

If the decision to raise the retirement age to 58 years has been prompted by budgetary reasons, then to 'sell' it under another name would hardly seem to be fair practice. Moreover, this measure is completely contrary to the government's policy declaration, in which a reappraisal of, and investment in, education were priorities. If, however, the government's intent really is to reduce the teacher shortage, then the unilateral abolition, without prior consultation, of a social measure whose importance is difficult to underestimate is rather short-sighted, to put it mildly.

Finally, this dispute once again illustrates how the pressure on social dialogue in Belgium is increasing. Earlier in October 2001, the chair of the VLD, Karel De Gucht, proposed curbing the right to strike in public services (BE0110310N). The proposal implied, among other changes, that prior to taking strike action a court would have to rule on the grounds of the action. (Jürgen Oste, TESA/VUB)

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