THE BOSSES of all three teaching unions decided at a joint meeting on Monday that they would take their confrontation with the government to the limit. They have announced a ‘long-term’ strike in September when the new school year starts, and at the end of next month, they will stage a big protest demonstration outside the presidential palace to voice their disapproval of the government’s “arbitrary” decisions regarding the reduction of weekly teaching periods according to years of service.
For any rational person, this seems too trivial an issue to cause such a big fuss and trigger an all-out strike at public schools. It is not as if the government has decided to extend the school day by a couple of hours, asked the teachers to work Saturdays, forced them to attend training courses in the afternoon or cut wages. All it has done was put an end to an irrational and unlawful practice that reduced the weekly teaching periods by two after eight years of service and by four after 12 years. It also ended the practice of union bosses working as full-time employees of the union while being paid by the state to teach.
The government, quite rightly, decided to end these unlawful concessions, but for the unions they are sacrosanct and cannot be reversed without their approval. Why was there a need for the government to negotiate something that was not only unlawful, but also bad practice. There is no other department in the public sector in which employees are entitled to a decreasing workload after eight and 12 years of service. If there had been a negotiation, the unions would probably have compromised on halving the teaching discount and claimed consensus was reached.
Perhaps they would have even agreed to the scrapping of the concession, but the crucial thing would have been union approval. And this is what the demonstrations, aggressive rhetoric and threatened strike are about. Teaching unions have had a say on all issues relating to public education for decades – the curriculum, exams, recruitment, school hours, promotions etc – a practice, misleadingly, referred to as “consensus”. What was really meant by “consensus” was that the unions always imposed their diktats on the government (this applies to all parts of the public sector), with the result that we have a failing public education system because it is geared to serving teachers rather than students.
Teaching unions have made such a fuss about the government’s decision because they fear it will set a precedent and diminish their ability to call the shots in public education. If the government is permitted to introduce these changes without consulting the unions it could take other decisions in the future also without consulting the unions. This is what the unions are afraid of and why they are threatening to disrupt the school year over what is, in reality, a triviality.