Public conciliator does not consider teacher's warning strike illegal

Empty classroom in an Estonian school. Photo is illustrative.
Empty classroom in an Estonian school. Photo is illustrative. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

While the Ministry of Education and Research finds this Friday's teachers' warning strike to be illegal, Harri Taliga, deputy public conciliator, said that the law only prescribes two conditions for a warning strike both of which have been met for this Friday's action.

The Ministry of Education and Research has made a last ditch attempt to prevent this Friday's teachers' warning strike from going ahead in writing to let schools know it would be illegal. In simplified terms, the ministry is claiming that a strike can only follow a labor dispute and failed conciliatory process. Because the ministry has only been engaged in talks over the salary of teachers, it finds that no strike can go ahead.

Reemo Voltri, head of the Estonian Education Personnel Union (EHL), said that the only precondition for a warning strike is three days notice, which the union has given.

Harri Taliga, who is standing in for Public Conciliator Meelis Virkebau, said that the conciliator does not administer justice and cannot say which side is correct. But he added that the conditions for a warning strike seem to be met as the only two requirements are three days notice and that the action cannot last longer than one hour.

He emphasized that the law makes no mention of warning strikes having anything to do with conciliation procedure. As the International Labor Organization urges the sides to avoid provocative action during conciliation procedure, Taliga said that the warning strike is perhaps not good practice, while this in no way makes it illegal.

The union is set to meet with representatives of the ministry and local governments on Friday. The ministry has said that local governments must be involved in the talks, while not all will be sending their representatives, giving as the reason the fact they do not have any say in how much money is allocated for teachers' salaries.

"We cannot force anyone to negotiate or arrive at an agreement. Any agreement is voluntary. It will happen if the sides find a way to agree on the conditions. But we cannot force anyone," Taliga remarked.

The acting public conciliator said that while the law lists persons who have the right to participate in negotiations, that right does not amount to an obligation.

He said that the problem is likely that the lion's share of teachers' salary coming from the state budget means local governments feel their opinion counts for very little, and that it is the position of the Office of the Public Conciliator that an agreement is possible just between the union and the ministry.

Taliga also said that the public conciliator can only propose a compromise solution once it has a clear idea also of the Education Ministry's position. The EHL has made its position of an 8-percent minimum salary hike known.

Asked when teachers might be able to go on a proper strike, Taliga said that a full strike has a longer advance notice period than three days but because the existing teachers' minimum salary agreement was, to the best of his knowledge, merely verbal, while the law requires collective agreements to be in writing, teachers could go on strike as early as December.

On the other hand, the teachers' union publicly said last fall that because negotiations then arrived at a minimum wage hike of almost 24 percent, the obligation to refrain from striking is valid.

"So it is a matter of interpretation whether teachers should refrain from striking until December 31, 2024. However, from the point of view of the public conciliator, any strike that goes ahead after January 2 is legitimate," Taliga added.


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Editor: Barbara Oja, Marcus Turovski

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