ATHENS, Greece — The nationwide public school system here has been virtually shut down as preschool and primary school teachers enter the fourth week of their strike, high school teachers conduct two-day work stoppages, and junior and senior high school students begin coordinated takeovers of their schools.
Junior and senior high schools students across Greece shut their schools down Oct. 9-10 in a series of nationally planned actions. The takeovers continue a wave of student protests that started at the beginning of the new school year, when students often found themselves without teachers in overcrowded classrooms and decrepit buildings, and were told they had to pay out-of-pocket for their books.
University students and professors are also holding demonstrations in large numbers, showing their solidarity and gearing up for their own strike activity.
Educators and students are reacting to European Union mandates that would rock the foundations of the historically stalwart public education system on the continent. Following policy-setting EU meetings in Lisbon, Portugal, and Bologna, Italy, in recent years, reforms are being introduced in all EU countries that would radically alter the education system’s basic character.
The reforms are creating an elite education “market,” characterized by privatization and rising fees, for those who can afford it. The steady erosion of the educational role of the public school is accompanied by the systematic downgrading of teachers, including by keeping their salaries low. Flexible work concepts are also being introduced, undermining standards in the name of reducing costs.
Preschool and primary school teachers have been on strike since Sept. 18, battling to force the government to accept a minimum set of demands that include a pay increase to bring starting salaries up from 950 euros ($1,200) a month to a livable salary of 1,400 euros ($1,765) per month.
Greek teachers are among the lowest paid in Europe, with an annual starting salary of 12,555 euros ($15,820) compared with 37,350 euros in Germany, 19,401 in Britain, 17,528 in Italy, and 17,463 in France.
Striking teachers, parents and students are marching in weekly demonstrations in major cities in a protest wave that continues to build in intensity and breadth as more and more people turn out to show their support. Union federations and union locals from all branches of the economy have passed solidarity resolutions with the teachers and students, and class-oriented trade union forces continue to swell the ranks of demonstrators.
Demonstrations often take place on streets lined with police. Riot police were called in early on to intimidate demonstrators, including by firing tear gas into the crowds. But the protests have only continued to mount, and the teachers union remains firm in its demands.
The government has thus far refused to back down. Its only concession was to offer teachers 2 euros more on a proposed monthly supplement totaling 105 euros, beginning January 2007. No discussion of a significant pay increase is under consideration.
Trade unionists aligned with the All-Greek Workers Militant Front have outlined a basic platform of struggle that includes the fight for an educational system that meets people’s needs.
The platform’s central tenets include the following: free, public education for all without class and racial barriers; an increase in government funding for schools and the abolition of all types of private education; a stop to school sell-offs to local authorities, leading to whole school systems being bought up by corporations; an end to short-term contracting of teachers; an end to imposing flexible work hours; steady, permanent employment for all teachers with a dignified salary, including an 1,800 euro starting salary; and full pensions after 30 years of employment at 80 percent of final salary.