Minister: Teacher strike very probably, but I want to avoid it at all costs

Minister of Education and Research Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200) told ERR that the government's inability to negotiate with educators to prevent a strike increases the likelihood of it, but that she still wants to prevent the strike in any way possible.

The teachers' union is meeting on Friday at five o'clock to discuss when to start the strike. What is your message, what else can you say to the teachers?

I don't have a solution in the works, but because we have to negotiate the 2025, I'd like to discuss over a longer period of time, over the entire state budget plan period (RES), and with the municipalities. Because, in addition to the minimum teacher compensation, there are several other education reform issues that must be solved. This strike is unlikely to be called off, but I still want to pursue a long-term agreement.

If as you suggest, a strike cannot be avoided, what is the Ministry of Education and Research's role in this?

I'm awaiting the national conciliator's proposal, which I'll have to present to the government and deliberate the position on it; whether we accept or reject it.

The discussion still needs to take place in the government, but we can see today that the chance of a strike is high, as there is no agreement in the administration on how to negotiate with the teachers and avoid a strike.

How were the Eesti 200 and the Social Democrats able to accept such a straightforward "no"? There are a few tools in the political toolkit to get your way even if the coalition's larger party says "no."

The toolbox is typically used when negotiating the budget (RES), or the coalition agreement. We also have the issue of getting the state funds in order, and teacher wages are part of the process of actually finding the state revenues.

It can't be as simple as just enforcing additional costs. It is also my responsibility now to make sure that some of the costs of education can be relocated to future teacher pay.

This is the task I must accomplish right now because I feel there is a resource that has been diverted elsewhere but which would be better spent on teacher compensation. But it is also clear that full teacher pay increases will not be available from that alone.

There are other things in the toolbox: a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Kaja Kallas is imminent, and a minister can always show their position by resigning. I understand that you are unwilling to take such a bold, coalition-breaking step for the sake of teachers' wages in Estonia.

We agreed on Thursday in the teacher pay negotiations that we would not give up the 120 percent target. It's just that today the Reform Party decided that it was not able to negotiate this deal with the teachers. However, there was unanimity in government that we would not back down from this goal, so there are no debates about it.

Government press conference. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

OK. What should parents and children be prepared for today – what kind of schooling can we expect in the next six months?

I wouldn't go ahead of myself and would wait for the national conciliator's proposal and the position of the union on it. On Monday, I want to meet with them again to discuss how we can move forward from this situation, whether there are any solutions, and whether there is any hope of beginning long-term negotiations. After all, there is no strike news yet.

Do you think that if there is a strike that it would suddenly succeed in crushing the Reform Party's resolve?

It's difficult for me to say right now since I want to avoid the strike in any way possible. On Thursday, Eesti 200 proposed a way to genuinely negotiate with teachers: the government just accepts that 120 percent is the goal and that we would keep to it, and we make a contractual commitment to accomplish this 120 percent. Municipalities should also be represented at the table. We had this suggestion, and the Social Democrats were enthusiastic about it, but it has yet to be agreed upon.

Is it fair to say that your idea was to negotiate a longer collective agreement? In March or April, for example, would we call upon everyone to the table and then sign a collective agreement? During this time, we would reach an agreement on a major education agreement with teachers and local governments and hold what we call extended talks.

Yes, the expectation of teachers is that there is long-term certainty that the parties and the government – and all the parties have promised this – will keep their promises, and that promise is to reach 120 percent of the Estonian average. They no longer believe in that promise, as in 2024 we do not actually have enough resources allocated to get there.

So a long-term agreement is needed to get industrial peace with teachers and to keep the education system going; a firm agreement, not just promises.

Teachers are also expecting a review of their workload, a career model, and a nationwide reform of the school network.

In sum, if we also want to solve Estonia's teacher shortage, talking about minimum wage isn't enough. To achieve a major developmental shift in education system in terms of teachers' careers, workload, remuneration, and school networks, we need a much broader negotiation, a much deeper reform, and a firmer agreement among all three sides.

Government press conference. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR


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Editor: Mari Peegel, Kristina Kersa

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