Teachers Trade Unions insist Hungary public education undergo systemic change

February 10, 2016

Galló-Istvánné-Gulyás-Balázs-Mendrey-László

“On the basis of the government’s activity to date, we had every right to believe that the roundtable was just a play for time.  The list of those invited did not inspire much confidence as the attending organizations were typically close to the government or dependent on the government.  Nevertheless, it was clear to everyone on Tuesday that this was not about that.  The government representatives made it clear that they were open to everything, even discussing systemic changes.  Something started.  Let’s see how far we get.  We should only walk out if the direction becomes unacceptable.  If there is a chance for substantive change, then there is much for us to do.” – László Mendrey, president, Teachers Democratic Trade Union PDSZ

“The Teachers Trade Union sincerely hopes that those will support its demands who participated in the first round of roundtable discussions.” – Statement issued by Teachers Trade Union PSZ

The first of a series of bi-weekly public education roundtable discussions took place on Tuesday.  Although a variety of organizations was represented, including many close to the government having little to do with education, the seat reserved for the Teachers Trade Union (PSZ) was conspicuously absent.

To the outrage of much of the rank and file of the organization he heads, Teachers Democratic Trade Union (PDSZ) president László Mendrey (pictured), who had previously called roundtable discussions illegitimate, not only attended but called the meeting successful, even though nothing concrete was decided.

For the most part it was agreed that it was necessary to make changes to the central state agency for managing schools, the Klebelsberg Institution Maintenance Center (KLIK), that teachers’ wages would not be increased by an unreasonable amount, that the market for textbooks would remain closed, and that discussions would continue.

Mendrey told the press that it was necessary to steer the educational system out of the crisis to which the past three years had led.  When asked why he participated in discussions he had previously said he would boycott, Mendrey said he saw a chance that the series of negotiations would be successful.

This was too much for many PDSZ members preparing to demonstrate on Wednesday and again on Saturday.   Some threatened to quit their union membership  Others actually tore up their PDSZ membership cards or called for Mendrey’s resignation.

In response, the PDSZ leader, who is unaccustomed to being on the receiving end of criticism, sent a letter to his colleagues today in an attempt to calm everyone down.

According to the letter, a copy of which was sent to the Beacon, Mendrey went to the roundtable prepared to walk out the second he saw thing were not moving in the right direction.  However, at the very outset the areas that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Minister in Charge of the Prime Minister’s Office János Lázár had previously stated were sacrosanct had been raised.  To his surprise, rather than tying teachers’ wages to minimum wage, the participants had been open to everything.  It had been agreed that solutions to the pressing problems of maintenance, institutional autonomy, the number of lessons, textbooks, and the overburdening of students and teachers be worked out by the end of April, Mendrey explained.

“It wasn’t possible to stand up because they were open to everything,” his letter says.  Between Tuesday’s plenary meeting and the next one in two weeks, six work groups made up of experts furnished by roundtable participants would be responsible for preparing the work.  “I think everyone needs to join in the work,” continued Mendrey, who thinks the Saturday demonstration is just as important now as before the roundtable discussions.  “None of you need to worry about the PDSZ.  You can be certain that, just as before, we will not sign anything unacceptable.”

In January 2013 PDSZ left the teachers’ strike committee on the grounds that the agreement reached with Minister of Human Resources Zoltán Balog was unacceptable.

At the time the chairperson of teacher trade union PSZ, Mrs. István Galló (pictured), felt too much was at stake not to reach an agreement with the government.   “The question regarding the state maintenance of schools was the only issue Balog refused to discuss,” she said. “He wanted to agree on everything else, and it was extremely important to him at the time that the parties agree.  At that time we felt that was the best solution.”

In a statement issued today, the Teachers Trade Union called for demonstrations to take place in Budapest on Saturday as scheduled, to pressure the government to meet all 25 of its demands.

As a member of the teachers’ strike committee, PSZ has held three rounds of expert discussions with government officials since December 2015.  The final meeting is scheduled for this Friday.

Last week Mendrey recommended that the two main teachers’ trade unions combine their strike committees.  He has yet to hear back from Galló or the other two participating trade unions.

A new chapter?

According to his letter, the strike committees were astonished to learn that Balog, the minister responsible for education, wanted to launch a new forum for discussion—the education roundtable—before the close of existing discussions.

Both trade unions were invited to attend, however PSZ declined participating in the plenary session because it did not want to engage in other discussions until the current round of discussions had ended.

In addition, PSZ continues to insist the government meet its demands, to wit:

  • that public educational institutions not be a part of government authorities.
  • that there be a radical reduction in the work burden on teachers
  • that a review be made of the rules governing the employment of teachers
  • that those not falling under the teacher career model receive a wage increase

“The Teachers Trade Union sincerely hopes that those will support its demands who participated in the first round of roundtable discussions,” reads the PSZ statement.

In reaction to Tuesday’s roundtable, a joint statement was issued on Wednesday by the presidents of the public workers’ councils established by the Kölcsey Ferenc Academic High School in Budapest’s 6th district and by the Herman Ottö Academic High School in Miskolc, Katalin Törley and Olivér Pilz, respectively, as well as by István Pukli, the director of the Telek Blanka Academic High School in Budapest’s 13th district.  According to the statement, their “initial fears have come to pass”, and “discussions are being held not for the sake of holding substantive talks but for the purpose of obstructing Saturday’s demonstration.

“The organizations attending Tuesday’s roundtable are not competent with regard to the internal problems of public education.  (We) consider the roundtable discussions illegitimate due to the lack of media coverage, the fact that actual decision makers and experts are being kept at a distance, and the atomization of the various themes,” reads the joint statement.

On the subject of Herman Ottó director Péter Madarász, they said there is little point to the government trying to merge the opinion of the emblematic figure of the disaffected movement with the actual will of the protesting institutions, because Madarász only speaks for himself.  They, on the other hand, claim to speak for 737 institutions that have joined the movement they started.

Protest or bust

After the education roundtable, the Parliamentary Cultural Committee continued its debate on education, at which the main architect of the educational reforms adopted under the first Orbán government, former education undersecretary Rózsa Hoffmann (Christian Democratic People’s Party KDNP), said in her capacity as deputy chair that, while there are problems in education, they are not nearly as bad as the teachers “complain”.   Galló, who attended the committee meeting, told journalists afterwards that they would hold the demonstration on February 13 no matter what.  “There is a systemic problem in education,” she said. “For this reason, not even a roundtable can solve the problems unless the government takes expert decisions.”

The Beacon contacted PDSZ head László Mendrey to find out what he made of the fact that many teachers were now directing their criticism at him.  We were also curious how Galló reacted to his proposal to unify their strike committees.

“Nothing has changed in the least,” Mendrey said. “I believe and PDSZ continues to believe that systemic changes are needed.” He said that those who expressed outrage were misinformed and were referring to speculation without knowing the actual facts.  He asserted that over the course of the discussions nobody denied there is a serious crisis in public education that can only be resolved by making changes to the system.  They did not reject the notion of a radical decrease in the state’s role, Mendrey said.

“On the basis of the government’s activity to date, we had every right to believe that the roundtable was just a play for time,” he said. “The list of those invited did not inspire much confidence as the organizations present were typically close to the government or dependent on the government.  Nevertheless, it was clear to everyone on Tuesday that this is about something else.  The government representatives made it clear that they were open to everything, even discussing systemic changes.  Contrary to the Facebook comments, it goes without saying that I cannot reach a verdict after just one meeting, especially not in this extreme case.  Something started.  Let’s see how far we get.  We should only leave if the direction becomes unacceptable.  If there is a chance for substantive change, then there is much for us to do.”

As for forming a unified strike committe, Mendrey said he had yet to receive an answer from PSZ.

The PSDZ president said he still wanted to speak at Saturday’s demonstration.

PSZ president Galló told the Beacon:

“I received a letter on January 24th in which László Mendrey proposed to unite the two trade union strike committees and to discuss this matter by February 5th.  We did not respond because much has happened since then.  Furthermore, this does not only depend on PSZ but the two other trade union organizations participating in the strike committee.  Everyone has to approve it, but Mendrey had yet to contact the other two organizations directly.”

Galló volunteered that she did not think it was a good idea to bring Mendrey along to the strike negotiations on Friday because PDSZ had conducted its own negotiations with the government.