Teachers Strike: unions say 60% of staff joined; Government says 30%
Workers claim mobilisation is "historic" and criticise "abusive" minimum services
BarcelonaToday was the first of the five days of industrial action called by education unions in this month of March. Unions called for mass participation to protest against the Education Department's policies and to demand improvements to the sector. At the moment, union USTEC claims that participation has been massive and exceeded expectations. The unions estimate that around 60% of school teachers have taken part in the strike, whereas Aspepc, a secondary school teachers' union, believes it is 75%. The Education Department, however, says that only 31.3% of state school teachers struck, according to data reported by 87.5% of school. At chartered schools, only 8.7% of teachers went on strike, according to data reported by 69.7% of schools. The unions claim more workers would have gone on strike had it not been for "abusive" minimum services requirements, but even so they claim the demonstration is "historical" and the strike "very massive".
"For a long time education unions had not agreed on so much, and now we are united," the USTEC spokeswoman claimed before the demonstration, where protesters chanted "Cambray resign" and "Enough impositions", began. The march advanced along Diagonal and ended at the Education Department's headquarters. There, Police officers guarded the entrance to the building, and there were some moments of tension as they stopped protesters from accessing the building. According to the police, around 22,000 people took part in the protest, while union CCOO believes the figure was around 40,000 people.
Early in the morning, some teachers could already be seen picketing and going to the demonstration in groups. Many students still went to schools, where they found but a few teachers, who were covering the minimum services. This is the case of a school in the district of Sant Antoni in Barcelona, where 100% of teachers allowed to strike did so: only the eight teachers required to cover minimum services turned up, albeit wearing T-shirts with the slogan "Education cannot be improvised". The head assures that staff are "outraged" by the hurried measures announced by the department. Their situation could be repeated in many schools in the Catalan capital, since, unlike other strikes, this time all public schools in Barcelona have agreed to mobilise, at least on the first day. They have also been joined by schools in Girona, Tarragona, Penedès, Maresme and Vallès Occidental, among others, in a response not seen even during the worst of the austerity cuts.
In kindergartens, on the other hand, where the minimum services required 50% of staff to be present, fewer staff have struck. In fact, at the Escola Municipal Els Tres Tombs, also in the neighbourhood of Sant Antoni, very few workers have taken part and families were able to leave their children at school as on any other working day. Most private day-care centres are also operating as usual.
Dialogue at a standstill
The showdown between teachers and the Department continues. Early this morning, the Department of Education has already called on unions to return to the negotiating table. The general director of Teachers, Dolors Collell, has asked them for dialogue and has assured, in declarations to Catalunya Ràdio, that they want to work to achieve a "great agreement". The department understands that the unions' request for some measures to be postponed one year is not justified, but says they are willing to listen to proposals on aspects such as shorter school days in September. "We are open to do better," she said, adding that all channels of communication remain open.
Collell has said that she understands the "pandemic fatigue" teachers have experienced, but regretted that the call for five days of strike would again affect students. The representative of the department acknowledged that they would like the industrial action to stop, but added that everyone is responsible for their bit: "We are open to talking and working towards an agreement".
The unions have not been slow to respond. "We want a proposal that can be negotiated from below," said Iolanda Segura, spokesperson for USTEC union. Segura has remarked that they have no intention of continuing talks if the Department does not come up with a concrete proposal: "We will not come here to waste time, we want them to turn up with a firm proposal that can be negotiated from below" to build "from scratch" and discussed "point by point". "So many things have built up that they have a lot to do and we will not give in on anything," she warned. USTEC has also criticised the minister's "arrogance" when announcing the measures.
Another aspect that has outraged the teachers even more has been the compulsroy minimum services. The Catalan government established higher requirements than for previous strikes: one management team member per school, a teacher for every three classrooms at primary and secondary schools, and 50% of the staff at kindergartens and special needs centres, as well as at extracurricular activities and the dining room services.
The reasons for the strike
This Tuesday's strike is the first of five days of industrial action. This first wave of protests will last until Thursday (March 15, 16 and 17) and will also be repeated on the 29th and 30th. In addition, on the 23rd there is a new strike planned in defence of Catalan language in schools. The unions claim that bringing forward the start of the school year, a decision made with no consultation, "was the straw that has broken the camel's back" of their discontent, but they also add old demands such as an investment of 6% of GDP in education (as required by law), improvements to working conditions (such as longer contracts), more staff to reduce student/teacher ratios and legal coverage to avoid having to teach a quarter of classes in Spanish, an issue over which a separate strike has been called on March 23.