Bulgarian teachers began a nationwide strike late last month, calling for higher wages and increased spending on education.

With an average salary of $320 a month, Bulgarian educators are among the lowest paid in Europe. Many are forced to take second or even third jobs in order to maintain a modest standard of living — an increasingly difficult task as prices of basic staples rise sharply in the wake of Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union.

As many as 70 percent of Bulgarian schools are participating in the strike, amid threats by the Ministry of Education to deduct time from the approaching winter and summer vacations.

In addition to demanding the allocation of a minimum 5 percent of national GDP toward education spending, Bulgaria’s 110,000 striking educators (roughly 91 percent of staff of the national education system, according to teachers’ unions) are calling for a 100 percent pay increase, to be implemented incrementally by mid-2008. The Ministry of Education, meanwhile, has offered only a 30 percent increase, claiming additional funds are unavailable. The government has also claimed that earmarking additional money for teachers’ salaries from state reserves would trigger inflation, in addition to layoffs. These projections have been vigorously challenged by unions.

Minister of Education Daniel Velchev has refused to accede to union demands, and has garnered renewed criticism after the publication of a secretly recorded conversation with Finance Minister Plamen Oresharski during negotiations earlier this month. The recorded dialogue reveals the two plotting ways in which to maneuver around the protestors so as to prevent an agreement. Teachers are demanding Velchev’s immediate resignation.

Amid the deadlock in negotiations, rallies, marches and prayer meetings have been organized around the country, with the largest taking place in the capital, Sofia. On Oct. 2, thousands of local teachers and union activists converged upon Sofia Independence Square, chanting “strike” and “resignation,” while demanding a clear blueprint for modernizing Bulgaria’s crumbling educational system. Teachers’ unions said 75,000 teachers filled the streets of downtown Sofia Oct. 11 as they reiterated their demands for higher wages and more government spending on education.