Spain: Indefinite teachers’ strike provoked by language rights' attack
The school year should have already begun on the Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera, near the eastern coast of the Iberian Peninsula), but it hasn’t. Since September 16, high school and primary teachers have been on an indefinite strike.
In Palma, capital of Mallorca, up to 6000 teachers have been demonstrating daily outside the main government building. When the ceremony marking the start of the Balearic Islands’ university term was held, a swathe of lecturers walked out to express their solidarity with the thousands of teachers protesting outside.
What has it taken to drive the teachers to such an extreme ― with no wages and dependent on voluntary contributions to their strike fund?
Why do all public sector teachers’ unions support the strike, both the “non-political” professional associations and the “political” unions associated with the major parties ― including the Balearic Island branch of the tame-cat National Association of Teachers of Education (ANPE), viewed as closest to the right-wing People’s Party (PP) that runs the islands’ regional government?
Two assaults on education and culture by regional and national PP administration have combined to drive the teachers to such high-stakes action.
Cuts and cultural attacks
There are the vandalising cuts to education funding, wages and working conditions, accompanied by the “reform” of the national syllabus by national education minister Jose Ignacio Wert.
These assaults have already produced huge stoppages and protests elsewhere in the Spanish state (especially in Madrid, where teacher’s resistance took the form of a “green tide” of protesters wearing the movement’s emblematic green T-shirt).
The Balearic Islands, under the PP government of premier Jose Ramon Bauza and education minister Joana Maria Camps, is where the PP axe has cut deepest. Since May 2010, the teachers’ working week has risen from 35 hours to 37.5 hours and their wages have fallen on average by 25%.
The 2013-2014 school year is set to start 1000 teachers short (8.3% of the teaching body) for the same enrolment of students.
The second factor is the Balearic Islands’ government’s new Integrated Language Procedure (TIL). This downgrades the Balearic variant of Catalan, the language of the islands for 800 years and of its school instruction up until now, into one of three languages to be taught in the education system, along with Castilian (Spanish) and English.
This has turned teacher anger into extreme outrage.
Bauza’s pretext for the move on Catalan’s status as the main language of instruction is the need to make more syllabus time available for teaching in English, portrayed as the passport to “a decent future for our kids”.
Further fuelling the fire of teacher fury has been the despotic response of the Bauza government to any opposition. In July, when three high school headmasters on Menorca simply communicated to the education department the disagreement of their school councils with the proposal, they were suspended.
When the education department’s representative on Menorca then resigned in protest, he was replaced by a reliable-looking priest from the ultra-conservative Catholic grouping Opus Dei. However, the curate had to resign before even starting the job because the outrage from big sections of the local Catholic community was so great.
Only now has Bauza been able to find a stooge willing to take the job ― a PP local councillor innocent of any connection with education.
On September 5, the timetable for TIL implementation was provisionally suspended by the High Court of Justice of the Balearic Islands on appeal from one of the teaching unions. Bauza immediately repackaged the timetable as an emergency regulation to sideline the court.
As for the tone from the government benches, here is PP deputy Antoni Camps: “The positive side of this strike is that will know the name and surname of those who are concerned about the future of our children and those, on the other hand, who are playing with the students to achieve political goals.”
During the present strike high school students supporting the strike have been detained by police (with their number badges hidden) and had mobile phones confiscated. Staff and students have been threatened with suspension for wearing red-and-yellow bows at school to show support for Catalan and opposition to TIL.
However, none of this has intimidated the movement―in the schools the students are putting out YouTube videos expressing their hatred of TIL and their solidarity with the teachers, often in songs that cleverly parody recent Catalan hits.
TIL has not come out of the blue―it is simply the latest attack of the Bauza government in its war to reverse the 30 years of gradual consensus-based normalisation of the role of the Catalan language in the Balearic Islands, a recovery after its effective outlawing from public life during the years of the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975).
Since he won a majority at the June 2011 regional elections, Bauza ― who had been preselected within the PP by faking sympathy for its more “Mallorcan” wing ― has been dutifully carrying out a program of de-Catalanisation that was never even hinted at in his election campaign.
Bauza's actions include: eliminating knowledge of Catalan as a requirement of public service employment (described by the University of the Balearic Islands as condemning the language to “progressive eradication” and opposed by all public sector unions); reducing the use of Catalan by the public broadcaster; and closing or defunding a range of cultural institutions.
Particularly important was the 2011 upgrading of Castilian as a language of instruction alongside Catalan, and segregating students according to their choice (against all pedagogical advice, including that of the Schools Council of the Balearic Islands).
Such moves were enough to enrage tens of thousands, including many PP voters, leading to a 50,000-strong “Yes to Our Language” demonstration in Palma on March 25 last year. The PP-backed counter-demonstration attracted 34.
Yet in June this year, Bauza’s main plan ― to show that, once parents had the choice of having their children schooled in Castilian, enrolment in Catalan education would drop sharply ― flopped miserably.
The education ministry claimed that about 70% of parents enrolled their children for Catalan schooling, and 30% for Castilian schooling.
However, a thorough survey of primary school enrolment by the main teachers’ union, the Interunion Syndicate of Workers (STEI-i), revealed that the ministry had been lying: enrolments for three-six year-olds revealed an 86% to 90.5% preference for schooling in Catalan. Only in a few Catholic schools did the breakdown approach the ministry’s figures, by 71% to 29%.
The reaction of the government to that defeat was to press ahead stubbornly with the TIL, avoiding any real consultation with the education community.
To introduce a “trilingual” syllabus TIL will reduce the obligatory minimum hours of teaching in Catalan from 50% to 30% or less. Teachers with only basic English will now have to teach subjects like mathematics and ecology in that tongue, “helped” by the most rudimentary of textbooks.
What explains this anti-educational madness, which has even led to the resignation of PP office-holders? It’s not due to the Balearic Islands’ students’ low level of Castilian ― that’s already better than that of students in several mainland Castilian-only regions.
At its heart lies the conservative, neo-Francoist, obsession that Spain, “one and indivisible”, is under threat from the Catalan, Basque and Galician minorities. In particular, every advance for the Catalan identity ― borne along by the burgeoning Catalan independence movement and the spread of Catalan language and culture ― just has to be stopped.
Bauza’s war is thus part of the endless PP-driven moves to force the Catalan government to introduce Castilian as a language of instruction. It is part of the same offensive as grotesque operations like the Aragonese PP government’s decision to redefine the Catalan spoken along the border with Catalonia as the “Aragonese Language Specific to the Eastern Region”.
At the time of writing, the strike, which began with 90% participation, is holding up, although participation had fallen to 55% by day five. Yet the daily protests show no sign of waning and the members of the Balearic Islands government simply cannot appear in public.
A strong point of the strike is the role of the cross-union teachers’ assembly, with group in every school and a website also keeping teachers and the public informed and inoculated against Bauza’s black propaganda.
All the signs are of a vicious drawn-out fight. The Bauza government has decided that it must win the confrontation, rejecting all offers of mediation, including by the chancellor of the University of the Balearic Islands.
If the teaches are to win, they will need every bit of support they can get.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. Read more of Dick Nichol's articles.]