How new strikes in Central Europe unmask the ugly face of ‘succesful transformation’ [VIDEO COMMENT]

Since 22nd of May, Romanian teachers have been on strike. Hundreds of thousands of people working in public schools, both in teachers’ posts and in different auxiliary positions, have stopped working. 

When I first heard of this news, I immediately recalled what happened in Poland four years ago. Then, it was April, and teachers of public schools also went on strike. When reading the demands of the Romanian teachers, I had an impression of a real déja vu. The teachers in Romania are demanding to get pay rises, saying that the money offered to beginning teachers is absolutely disgraceful. And even the cash that can be earned by teachers with years of experience is absolutely incomparable to what people with higher education and with a lot of skills should earn elsewhere. This is basically the same that happened in Poland in 2019. The same arguments, the same words about discouraging young people from the profession. 

In Poland, in the end, there was a deception. The strike, which started on 8th April 2019, was suspended on 27th and was never started again. In fact, it was lost by the teachers. I wish the Romanian people to have a more positive outcome of the protest action, especially that staging a strike in the public sector requires courage, requires motivation and particular commitment to work. A paradox? No. In fact, starting a protest action in the public sector in central Eastern Europe and the Balkans shows that you are really committed to working for the state structure and that you really want your work to go for a public good. There are so many other jobs that a person with higher education could do and most probably make more money. If you stay in the public sector nevertheless, it means that you want your work to mean something. 

Looking at both Polish and Romanian cases shows us something universal about Central and Eastern Europe.

I would say it shows us one of the ugliest faces of the transformation, the neoliberal transformation of the region in the 90s. It was the time when the public sector was massively de-funded, and when we heard a lot about the necessity to privatize, to cut spending and to reduce cash supposedly pumped into useless administration organs. I think the same arguments were used not only in Poland, in Romania, but also in other countries of the region. As a result, we got underfunded public services: not only education, but also transport, health care or anything else which is normally administered by the state. People are getting disillusioned with the level of services they might get. They are asking where their taxes are going? What should be the pillar of a healthy functioning state is falling into decay. 

This is, as I said, this is probably one of the ugliest moments of the transformation. It is not only about thousands of people who are deprived of decent wages. The whole societies in the region are deprived of something that should assure a healthy, functioning community.

Each of us will need or has already needed education and healthcare, or would be happy to move around with a stealthily functioning public transport. However, we were deprived of all that. 

We were pushed into false ways of privatizations that, as the experience of Western countries show, don’t bring any good solutions. Neither to health care, where the most complicated medical procedures are simply unprofitable nor to public transportation – just see how the railways in Great Britain look like. Nor to education where leaving the quality education to the rich brings immense inequalities in every possible area of life. 

When I’m looking at Romanian teachers saying basically the same things as the teachers in Poland were saying in 2019 I might also predict what would happen if this strike ends in a failure, just like the Polish one did. People will not be working for free forever. Teachers are aware that they are an educated, valuable workforce. They know what their value is. They know they have a lot of unique skills. A lot of so-called soft or communication skills that are apparently so important for the employers – and they will simply go somewhere else. 

This is basically what happens in Poland. We don’t want to fund good public education? People are giving up.

And when this school year was starting, there was a lot of alarming news, even from bigger cities in Poland, that teachers are simply not there. Is this what we want to see in central Eastern Europe? Is this what we want to build healthy societies? This, as I said, is one of the ugliest parts of the neoliberal capitalist heritage of the 90s. 

Right now, we hear a lot about getting back the sovereignty of the Central European countries. A lot of governments or right wing parties in the region are claiming that thanks to their actions, thanks to strengthening of national identity, these societies will regain the place they deserve in Europe. Well, a lot of arguments against the European center exploiting the periphery can be actually true, here I could send you to the video on the center-periphery relation we did in Cross-Border Talks.

But we must be aware that only pumping national identity will not help our societies to regain proper functioning. We just need to add more funding to certain sectors. We simply can’t rely on a cheap state, as it was called in Poland in the 90s and the beginning of 21st century. 

Cheap state means a country where the administration is lacking, where basic services are lacking, where education is not on satisfactory level. And when people become increasingly frustrated, because the easiest, the easiest things can be properly solved. And if we are talking about regaining sovereignty, let us think first about making citizens regain comfort of everyday living.

This text has originally been published in Romanian by PressHUB. It is translated and republished by Cross-Border Talks on the basis of partnership between our media.

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