Hungarian Teachers Preparing to Strike

October 8, 2013

Translation of interview with László Mendrey, head of the Teachers Democratic Trade Union (PDSZ), appearing in the 3 October 2013 edition of the Magyar Narancs.

Perhaps the largest public scandal in recent times, the start of school has been a publically discussed topic for several weeks—what doesn’t work right or even not at all in the educational institutions taken over by the Klebelsberg Center (KLIK).   In the end the head of PDSZ did not give his name to the reorganization.  We spoke about the situation and the possibilities of protecting interests.

What feedback is there regarding the increase in teachers wages or rather decrease?  What do the teachers think about this?  In the end the income of the majority actually increased.

Teachers last received a significant raise within the framework of the Medgyessy government’s one hundred day program—a 50% increase which the government of course inflated away because it didn’t have the resources to cover it.  It’s no wonder that this government was able to campaign very successfully with the promise of an increase in wages while in opposition.  At every ceremony marking the start of school or teachers’ day Rózsa Hoffmann gave long speeches about appreciating teachers.  Now once again we’re in the campaign season and the education government had to do something.  But it was also a campaign requirement that they justify to the other societal groups why teachers are receiving more money.  That is why it was necessary to also emphasize that with the additional money comes a new type of work time organization.  At the start of summer the state secretary always objected strenuously when we understood this to mean an increase in workload, but by now it is clear to everyone that the teachers’ workload increased significantly.

The ministry says that it is fair.  You have to work more and are rewarded with higher wages.

According to Rózsa Hoffman whoever complaints about workloads has a problem with the knowledge of his profession.  To this I say that if Rózsa Hoffman really believes this then she doesn’t know what happens in the schools.   In September 2013 the workload grew by a large amount.  The average wage increase was let us say 34 per cent, but one must work 45-50 per cent more, in other words the wage increase does not cover the additional workload.  Furthermore the average increase in basic salary is extraordinarily unfair in that everyone is grouped together with beginner teachers in the so-called Pedagogue 1 category, including those who have worked for 30 years as well as those who have worked for 3 years, as well as those with numerous qualifications and those who have no qualifications other than a diploma.

But they say this is just transitional while they train those who will classify the teachers.

Many are looking at retirement in the near future.  They can’t afford to wait another two or three years.  The evaluators should have been trained a long time ago.  My understanding is that the training started a year ago but for some reason was suspended.  Incalculable training, advanced training, many teachers work and accomplishments are ignored by putting every teacher in one category.  It offends the teachers’ sense of justice.  Then they did away with the wage supplement, the overtime, etc.  They tell us there is no overtime because there are no obligatory number of teaching hours:  these have disappeared from the renewed Hungarian educational system as a result of the revolutionary changes.  Now all we talk about are the actual hours spent in the classroom teaching.  This belongs to the same class as “framework numbers?  They won’t exist, will they.”  Teachers’ wages are paid by the state treasury on the basis of the number of employees, and the number of employees are calculated on the basis of the number of hours—but someone still has to go into overtime, whatever they call it.  The bigger problem is that most of the additional work is completely unnecessary, pointless administrative activities: they would use our professional knowledge primarily for this.

Aren’t the school directors responsible for accounting for what the teachers do within the school outside of teaching hours?

According to the wording of the law the school director must document every minute spent by teachers in the school.  This would be difficult to imagine even in a small school with a teaching staff of 10-20.  But in the case of teaching staffs of 80-120 people this is inconceivable.  The director cannot do anything other than require that the teachers document their own work.  They must fill in tables put together with unbelievable creativity when I worked one on one with a student, when I prepared for my lessons, when I corrected the homework, when I left, when I came back.  This is nonsense.  A waste of energy.

Rózsa Hoffman’s counter argument is that for everyone the workweek is 40 hours but teachers need only spent 32 hours teaching.

Teachers don’t need enemies with high ranking friends like this.  During the end of the previous government cycle the then Ministry of Education, Tárki, and PDSZ prepared a work survey.  From this it turned out that in addition to the then 22 obligatory hours of instruction the teachers average weekly workload was 51 hours.  And this has only increased since then.  The lessons require very intensive and fastidious work.  Who thinks this can be accounted for simply in terms of work hours does not know what he is talking about.  It was not by accident that the teachers division of labour was what it from time immemorial.

In the end has the only that changed apart from the documentation is that the same amount of work has to be performed in the faculty lounge rather than at home?

Except the faculty lounges are not suitable for 30-40 teachers to sit there and correct homework.  Correcting homework requires total concentration.  To err then is to do a students serious injustice.  If just five colleagues are doing something else in the faculty lounge you cannot do this properly.  Not to mention the fact the afternoon hours are already divided between study groups, individual development, and one on one tutoring.  After correcting homework and preparing lessons only 8 of the “40” hours remain.

According to Rózsa Hoffman the erosion of family bonds means that it is better for the school community to take care of the children so they do not look for ugly things on Google or YouTube.

Why?  Are students not able to watch or read ugly things on their smart phones within the school’s walls?  Is it better if they mix with bad company after four o’clock in the afternoon?   Oversight and the school police are counterproductive.  These things cannot be handled this way.  Since I’ve been teaching primary schools are open until 4 or 5 pm.  In order for a child to be there in the afternoon and for us to deal with him the child must be 12-13 years old.  The all day school, while a good thing, does not mean this.  From there the child does not take lessons home, not even a bag.  Furthermore, where this works there is room for the children to study, relax, play.  In Hungary most of the schools are architecturally and structurally unsuitable for this task.  For this there is obviously no money to make them suitable—but if I only have an old little Polski (Fiat), then there is no point in calling it a Formula 1 race car.

The State Secretariat has often stated that the wages of those whose salaries decrease despite the additional work will receive some sort of wage compensation.  Is this reassuring?

No.  Explaining after the fact that this only affects three per cent of the teachers—as though this was small—but now we are addressing this and in the near future we’re working out a solution, well, I don’t think that the 4500 people affected are going to be especially grateful.  We’ll know exactly how many are affected in a few days when the September wages arrive.  The education government had three and a half years to prepare what they wanted to introduce.  All the while we had to listen to those many colleagues who have worked so long and hard for state secretary wages about how their salary might be adversely affected.  This was cynical and shameless and I don’t even understand how the state secretary came up with this.  That they should try to rectify the situation after the fact is the least they can do.

And are they?

Let’s be realistic. It’s an election year so they’re going to get it.  It’s bad enough that they couldn’t give the amount originally promised.  The current promise is that they will get the rest from the next government with several years delay.

The complete centralization of the appointment of school directors has resulted in many cases where the ministry has appointed a school director against the will of the local faculty or broader community.  We heard of numerous cases of this beforehand as well.  Has the balance been ruined with the centralization or does it just appear that way?

Over the past three years we’ve experienced that the school operators, which before KLIK included the local governments, appointed someone other than the faculty, parent community, and student community would have liked.

What was the proportion before 2010?

One-third, and that was already a lot.  Now everything has become very simple.  Rozsa Hoffman reads and decides.  No doubt she is a good judge of character.  But things can be made to look good on paper.  It’s possible to falsify or plagiarize wonderful applications.  That’s why it was better when the local governments were responsible for maintaining schools.  They at least knew about whom they were deciding, and locally the oversight and opposition to change could be stronger in some cases.

What can the trade unions do in these cases in the interest of the teachers?

Our colleagues are not going to go against their own interests and are working in the situation in which they find themselves in such a way so that the parents and children don’t notice the tension.  This works in the short term but in the long term it is harmful to work moral and the results.

What about tensions over wages?  How are the young teachers who received substantial increases and the older teachers who received smaller increases, if any?  Has there been any feedback?

Not for the time being.  Of course there is some disgruntlement, some of it strong.  I don’t know how much the government is aware of this . . . .

What do you assume?

We  have seen over the past three years how they have masterfully divided the groups we deal with, be it students or teachers.  It would be a big problem if the solidarity between us were to end.  We’ve done everything possible to prevent this.  One cannot find many groups of teachers–perhaps 3 per cent–who feel they are better off.  We are confronted with completely ridiculous fundamental operational problems day by day.  If the printer breaks down nobody knows if the party responsible for the school’s up keep, Klik, or the party responsible for its operation, the local government, is to pay for the new part, or whether everyone will approve the repair or not. The school director does not have the right to decide because she does not exercise the rights of an employer.  Leading teachers as they are called by the state secretariat are not possible because the centralized rules are so strong that there really isn’t any room for „teacher leadership.”  It cannot be argued that in this respect Rózsa Hoffman wasn’t thorough, or that her thoroughness isn’t damaging.  The centralization of the curriculum and the “apportioning” of the teaching materials is going to result in a serious decline in results.

Hoffman believes the competence based “liberal” education resulted in the neglect of basic learning, and that this explains the decline in results.

Yes, that is what she believes.  Except this is not supported by so much as a single piece of data.  It is simply not the case.

At times like this one must ask if things are this bad why aren’t tens of thousands protesting in the streets and why isn’t there a country-wide strike?

In March following the initiative of the PDSZ there was a serious strike preparation throughout the country.  May tens of thousands of teachers would have walked out.  It’s not by chance that the local governments did everything they could to prevent this.  Recently we held a meeting at which it was decided to form a strike committee to see how we stand.  Are other groups of workers protesting in mass the new work laws?  We mustn’t lose sight of the trade union’s responsibilities either, and the legal climate is not favorable to promoting our interests, especially in light of the changes make to the strike law at the beginning of the current government cycle.  And then we have the creation of the National Teachers’ Faculty.  Its only function is for the local governments to have an organization that is directed from above capable through “negotiations” of obstructing what little reconciliation of interests they were compelled to do.  We’re telling everyone to sign the modified work contracts but to write that they accepted it with legal reservations in case one day the fact that it was foisted on the teachers can be grounds for a lawsuit.  This must be done away once the opportunity presents itself.

Referenced in this article:

“Elkezdeni a sztrájkfelmérést”, Magyar Narancs. 3 October 2013. pp. 8-10.