Russian teachers strike

Tuesday, October 17, 1995 - 10:00

By Renfrey Clarke MOSCOW — On September 1 Russia's children streamed back to school after the summer break. The bouquets of flowers they brought turned out to be almost the only benefits which the new education year brought the country's teachers. Promised pay rises generally failed to materialise and working conditions remained catastrophic and were continuing to worsen. By September 26 many teachers had had enough. An all- Russian day of strikes and other protests, called by the Union of Public Education and Science Workers, shut down child-care centres, schools and higher education institutions in 74 of the country's 89 administrative regions. The union's key demand was for the prompt payment of some 350 billion roubles (US$78 million) owed to education workers for wages. They also called for the extension to all employees in the sector of a 54% pay rise pledged by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in August but paid only in a minority of districts. Other demands included increased funding to allow educational institutions to meet their normal operating expenses. Leaders of the education union later reported that a total of 11,375 schools and other institutions had been affected by strike action. Some 560,000 teachers, more than a third of the total, either stayed away from work or refused to take classes. Many other education employees attended meetings or signed telegrams supporting the union's demands. In Smolensk in European Russia and Yekaterinburg in the Urals, demonstrations of about 1000 people condemned the government's neglect of the education sector. Education workers in other cities picketed local administrative offices. In the Khakass Republic in Siberia, teachers organised meetings with parents in order to explain their grievances and plan further action. Critics of the Russian government are finding a powerful symbol in the teacher's revolt. Until recent years education workers rarely withdrew their labour. But the wave of education strikes across the country in the spring of 1992 forced government leaders to accept that the situation in schools had become unendurable. Substantial pay rises followed. However, these gains were quickly swallowed by high inflation and government spending cuts. Between 1992 and 1995, Izvestiya reported late in August, education funding fell from 2.1% to 1% of the consolidated budget, and from 5.9 to 3.1% in the federal budget. While almost halving its real spending on education, the federal government has done its best to evade responsibility for the resulting crisis. Regional governments have now been charged with meeting many expenses. Before being put to use, much of the money earmarked by the federal government for education now has to make its way through impoverished — and often corrupt — regional administrative machines. Inadequate and now haphazard education funding has been the result. Shortly before the September 26 strike, it was reported that the pay rise decreed by Chernomyrdin in August had been implemented only in 21 of Russia's administrative regions. Without this increase, most teachers' wages remain far below the officially defined "subsistence minimum income". In September, most teachers received monthly wages ranging from 200,000 to 300,000 roubles (US$44-66), compared with average earnings in industry of more than 500,000 roubles. Funding for the non-wage expenses of educational institutions has suffered as well. Numerous schools began the 1995-96 education year without money to pay water and electricity bills. School buildings and equipment are growing decrepit due to the lack of repairs. Younger teachers are quitting the profession in droves. Massive teacher shortages have only been prevented because vacancies have been filled by teachers migrating to Russia from other republics of the former Soviet Union. But in remote districts where migrants are reluctant to settle, the lack of teachers is now often acute. Although the education crisis has been felt most severely in the provinces, it has not bypassed Russia's largest cities, Moscow and St Petersburg. Meanwhile, both cities have a policy of refusing residence permits to migrants. The result has been pronounced teacher shortages, especially in the area of foreign languages. Throughout Russia, problems of inadequate funding are now compounded by severe shortages of textbooks. For many years these have been provided free to pupils, paid for out of the federal budget. This year, however, the federal Finance Ministry tried to insist that provincial authorities were responsible for paying for the printing of textbooks. Following a broad outcry, the ministry was forced to retreat and issue a loan to allow textbook printing to go ahead. All these aspects of the education crisis have convinced large numbers of teachers that only concerted protest can force the government to meet its responsibilities. Strike action is seen as a last resort by many and in regions where wage delays have been minor, teachers generally stayed on the job on September 26. The response to the strike call was also influenced by federal government counter-moves; on September 23 Chernomyrdin ordered the handing over of 253 billion roubles (US$56 million) to allow partial settlement of the wage debt. Nevertheless, the news agency Itar-Tass reported that in St Petersburg as many as half the schools and kindergartens were shut on September 26. In remote areas where many teachers had not been paid for months, the level of participation was higher. In Arkhangelsk in the far north of European Russia, all the schools were reported closed, and in Magadan in the Far East, 25 out of 30 were closed. The impact of the protests was appreciable. Itar-Tass quoted leaders of the education workers' union stating that the day of action had achieved its goal, focusing government and public attention on the dire financial state of teachers and educational institutions. Even some concrete gains were registered: in Bryansk, Astrakhan and Smolensk provinces, decisions were taken to pay the wage increase ordered by the federal government. But Russia's schools remain gripped by crisis, and the only real solution — a basic reordering of government priorities, leading to the restoration of historic levels of education funding — is not in prospect. When leaders of the education workers' union issued their call for strike action, they stressed that further struggles would follow if teachers' demands were not satisfied. Union activists now plan to press ahead with this perspective.

From GLW issue 207