Appearing on the news on October 22nd, minister Vujovic said the following about the teachers’ strike: “I urge them to rethink how much they work and how they can compensate the wage cuts by additional work”. Later, this statement was published on this TV station’s website. On the same day, some schools were closed, others had shorter classes. After the pressure, classes in some schools were held according to the schedule in the afternoon, and a number of schools acted as if nothing was happening.
In any case, after a chaotic day in elementary and secondary schools, the minister urged the teachers to think. What was the minister saying with this? And an even more pertinent question for the minister, at whom was call to “rethink” aimed. Only teachers?
We are witnessing a long-term systematic collapse of the education system and the faith in it. Teachers, lecturers and professors belong to a single-digit percentage of society with higher education and, at the same time, if it is necessary to point out – they do one of the noblest jobs: teaching. However, for years efforts have been made to present the teachers as parasites on the state budget who spend money and produce nothing. The impression that the state would prefer to “abolish” the education system or to declare teaching a socially-useful work which should not be paid from the budget is even stronger.
Not only is the education system not recognized in the public as one of the pillars of society, which it would have to be, but it is also demolished from the inside by a number of reforms, none of which was completed. Teachers were urged to produce Scandinavian results, but under Balkan conditions. For years, they have been intimidated with the increase of class size, and, thus, reduction of the number of weekly classes and lectures, and the increase of weekly number of lectures, i.e. increase of number of lectures necessary to maintain full pay – which all translates to downsizing. Therefore, the teachers have been threatened with layoffs for years.
On the other hand, the power of the union has been systematically weakened for years: decentralization of unions, establishment of more and more unions, both representative and those that are not, constant establishment of new union fractions and conversion of union organizations into profitable companies whose leaders are getting rich like successful entrepreneurs, disputes, flirting with the government, the workers’ loss of faith in union leaders.
All this has contributed to diminish the strength of the protest, and to make a general strike, i.e. total work stoppage almost impossible. It is only when all the children stay at home instead of being in schools and when there is no one to “look after” them (this argument is becoming more frequent during the teachers’ strike, as if the schools were babysitting organizations) – only then will the teachers be able to influence the decision makers.
Salaries in schools are below the national average and the lowest in the region, the education system is not reformed, but has instead collapsed under the constant attempts at reforming, unclear goals and vague deadlines, and the public has been made to believe that teachers are lazy and can’t teach their children anything, so they are getting more and more illiterate and ignorant.
Teachers are not protected by the unions and the relevant ministers have never been open to their requests. Not only did they never fight to protect or provide better work conditions for the teachers, they always opposed their interests.
The current minister of education and his advisers say that the strike is pointless, since there is no money. Bureaucrats with no experience in elementary or secondary education negotiate with union representatives. In such a situation, minister Vujovic urges them to “rethink”. This statement is in line with the government decree on social welfare which will have to be earned, which was elaborated by the minister of labor Vulin (Sofija Mandic wrote about this issue).
The ministers warn various slackers daily and threaten them by saying how no one will give them something for nothing. The headlines about the richest people in Serbia, of whom allegedly the state is unable, but in fact is unwilling to collect taxes, should be added here, as well as those about the enormous amounts of money that parties receive from the budget. We won’t take from the rich even that which is rightfully ours, we will give ourselves, i.e. the parties, more than we should – but we will implement the so-called austerity measures fiercely, by taking the money from teachers, doctors and retirees.
So, minister Vujovic said that teachers already work a little, so they have enough time to, let’s say, do some gigs. Besides recommending the moonlighting, the minister panders to populist belief that the teachers have it easy because they don’t work eight hours a day. What’s more, a clerk at the municipal, city or national administration, hired solely as a party cadre and an absolute surplus and, thus, a waste of money, who effectively works merely two hours a day, including gossiping at the office, making coffee and reading the headlines, and whose wage is, on top of all that, higher that a teacher’s – should not think about the amount of work he does, because he works eight hours a day. The minister didn’t urge such employees to this type of contemplation.
Just to be clear, every elementary or secondary school teacher gets an official decision on the allocation and weekly number of classes at the beginning of each school year. If he doesn’t have the maximum number of classes, he will get a proportionally lower wage. And that’s totally fine. Number of lectures is directly dependent on the number of children enrolled and the number of classes, and only those who work in schools know the fight among schools for each student. Only they are aware of the fact that the laws of the market essentially rule the schools. Therefore, a simple rule applies in schools: the number of lectures determines the salary. Does the salary of an administrative worker depend on his workload? Of course it doesn’t, their salaries are the same and regular whether they actually do some work or not.
Secondly, the work hours in schools are like that due to the specificity and nature of work. Only someone who has never held 5 or 6 classes in a row, day after day, week after week, year after year, may think that it’s an easy job. In addition, classes are not the only obligation of a teacher and his workday does not end with the bell that marks the end of the last class.
A special problem are public companies to which no rules apply, not even the future pay scales, which are supposed to put salaries in the public sector into some order. After their introduction, it shouldn’t happen that a driver at some agency has a higher salary than a doctor. If the public sector is really to be reformed in this way, then it should necessarily lead to an increase of salaries in the education sector.
A few years ago, the salaries in a phantom Public Company “Shelters” were made public. Coffee maker in that company had almost the same salary as a primary school teacher. A driver’s salary exceeded by far any salary within primary and secondary school system. What is the government trying to tell us by exempting public companies from pay scales, i.e. when it says: teachers, you think about how much you work and be happy with what you get, and we will continue with the same policy of funding the public companies, companies in restructuring and the steel plant, we will continue to give subsidies, continue to fill the treasuries of parties.
Down with teachers, who work so little, yet dare to go on strike!
Still, the minister wasn’t talking only to teachers. He and the entire government of Aleksandar Vucic are primarily addressing, as they like to call it, the nation. And this nation is unemployed, impoverished, angry, incited against the lazy public sector, and especially against teachers. This is the same “nation” for whose benefit the prime minister and his ministers say that they don’t sleep, don’t eat and don’t breathe, but just work for their better tomorrow. And to these people, at the end of the day, when they are already mad and angry because there was no one to look after their children because of the strike at some schools, the minister said that the teachers are actually arrogant slackers who are getting paid for basically nothing and have the time for an extra job, i.e. a gig.
Therefore, the minister sets the final blow to the already knocked down education, saying what many thought before him but did not dare say publicly. The relevant minister remained silent about this shameful statement and did not explain to his colleague what all this is really about. But, how could he explain when he doesn’t even know himself, and his advisers consider the teachers’ demands irrelevant, just like they consider the students’ demands “not worthy of the walk”.
Not only that the relevant minister didn’t react to this statement by Vujovic, but there was no reaction at all, not from the teachers, or unions, no one. So how could it be any different, when we are overwhelmed by the impudence and arrogance and silently drowning in the outbursts of populism.
The author got a BSc and MSc at the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade, the department of Serbian literature and language with general literature. She is currently preparing her PhD: Female literature in the magazine “Misao” 1919-1937.
Translated by Marijana Simic