It was a great relief to hear on Friday that all three teaching unions had rejected President Anastasiades’ compromise proposal with which they left the presidential palace the previous day. All three unions, Poed, Oltek and Oelmek, decided at separate meetings of their respective members to say no to the president’s last-ditch attempt to avert strike action at the start of the new school year, reminding everyone that compromise is not on their agenda.
By doing so, they spared Anastasiades the embarrassment of another capitulation to public sector unions, something that has become the hallmark of his presidency. This would have been a bigger embarrassment than usual because he originally took a hard line, fully backing his education minister, who was publicly pilloried by union bosses and ridiculed on social media by teachers. At the first meeting he had with union bosses at the presidential palace a few weeks ago he stood firm, merely suggesting the two sides engaged in talks; these failed.
He stepped in again on Thursday after consultations between minister Costas Hambiaouris and the unions led nowhere. On Thursday he met the teachers half-way – he backed down on the abolition of the reduction of weekly teaching period with years of service, but as a compromise he proposed one fewer per week instead of the current two. He also offered an increase in the pay scale of teachers with extra responsibilities as well as credits that would count in promotions for additional duties. This agreement would last one year to give time to the ministry and unions to negotiate a permanent deal.
Anastasiades also backed down on ending the exemption from teaching for union bosses. Two officials from each union would have no teaching responsibilities while for other officials the government would offer €175,000 to cover the cost of replacements, while they engaged in union work during school hours. The deal put together on Thursday would reportedly save the government about €7m, of which €2m would go to the teachers in payments for extra duties. The extra hours of teaching would cover the need for 214 new teachers, the government said.
It was a retreat by the president made all the worse by the revelation the new ‘proposal’ was put together with the teaching union bosses at Thursday’s meeting. Government spokesman Prodromos Prodromou said that this was not a government proposal but a ‘compromise’ agreed after three hours of discussions at the palace with union bosses. This was the astonishing thing – the union bosses helped put the package together and then went to their members and told them to reject it.
They had played the government very cleverly, taking the moral high ground and declaring they were offered financial benefits, which they had not asked for. The dispute was not about money, said the Poed chief, while asserting that “we cannot be bought.” The unions called on their members to attend Tuesday’s demonstration outside the presidential palace and ordered head teachers not to attend meetings held ahead of the new school year. There was no talk of an indefinite strike, unions saying teachers would be at schools on the first day of term and subsequently decide the industrial action to be taken.
Meanwhile, the government has put a brave face on its humiliation by the unions. The compromise agreed on Thursday was no longer on offer Hambiaouris said, adding that the ministry would carry on with its preparations for the new school year. Pressure was also applied on the teachers, with Prodromou suggesting the government would act if the teachers failed to meet their obligations and ignored ministry instructions. All indications are that things would turn nastier before there is a resolution, but the government may have put itself in a slightly stronger position in the publicity battle by watering down its stance on Thursday. It is now very clear to everyone who the uncompromising party is and that a full on confrontation that Anastasiades wanted to avoid is now inevitable.
Two weeks ago, we wrote here: “The intention of teaching unions to stage an indefinite strike from the start of the new school year is a declaration of war. This can no longer be classed as an ordinary industrial dispute because the stakes are high, the warring sides fighting for ultimate control of public education.” This explains the unions’ refusal to accept a compromise and the folly of Anastasiades in opting for appeasement and believing there could be a consensual resolution of the dispute. If the government wants to take back control of public education, it must be prepared to fight because the unions have made it very clear they will not surrender it peacefully.