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Teachers' union, conciliator still do not agree on who can strike

Children at a kindergarten in Rapla.
Children at a kindergarten in Rapla. Source: Olev Kenk/ERR

The national conciliator and Estonian Educational Personnel Union (EHL) do not agree who which educators can take part in next month's scheduled strike. The union says all teachers, including those at kindergartens, have the right while the conciliator argues for only general education schools.

In a letter to the Ministry of Education and Research, national conciliator Meelis Virkebau reiterated only schools affected by the minimum salary dispute should be able to participate. This would limit the action.

"More specifically, this is manifested in two ways. In the negotiations with the Ministry of Education and Research, the EHL requested a specific increase in the minimum wage only for primary and secondary school teachers, mentioning the pay gap for nursery school teachers and VET [vocational education institutions] teachers in general terms," wrote Virkebau.

It was stated that wages for kindergarten and vocational education institutions are not set by the government.

However, the EHL believes all members of the union have the right to strike.

"The statutes of the EHL's member unions stipulate that all educators may belong to their respective union. For example: according to point 3.1 of the statutes of the Harju County Educators' Union [Harjumaa haridustöötajate liit/HHL]: '3.1 Membership of the HHL is open to any employee of an educational establishment in Harju County who accepts the statutes of the EHL and pays the union fee" EHL information manager Janno Isat said.

National mediator Meelis Virkebau. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

He said one argument for including all education workers is that salaries across schools are correlated.

"In addition, there is a legal practice in the form of the warning strike of November 10, in which all the above-mentioned educators participated or may have participated. Since the beginning of the strike action(s), the EHL has stood up for all educators who may be members of the EHL," Isat said.

"There is no law that prohibits some workers belonging to the same trade union from striking and others not. The fundamental right to strike under the Constitution therefore applies," he added.

The union official also stressed that threatening workers and trying to scare them away from participating in the strike is illegal.

Ministry: Pay the substitute, not the striker

Both Virkebau and the education ministry said again on Monday that people participating in the strike will not be paid and this is legal.

"The ILO's [International Labor Organization] Committee on Freedom of Association is also unequivocal in its view that the principle of non-payment of wages is neither a restriction on the right to strike nor on freedom of association," ministry communication advisor Iiris Saluri said, explaining the national conciliator's position.

The warning strike at Kiili High School, Harju County. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

"The money allocated to school teachers' salaries should be used, for example, to pay substitute teachers and/or teachers who are not on strike and who have to take on a greater number of tasks, as well as to pay bonuses. In any case, schools must remain open during the teachers' strike," she said.

Saluri added that the ministry does not pay salaries to striking teachers in public schools. "You are paid for the time you actually work. However, if teachers joining a strike in state schools are paid from the EHL strike fund – if there is such a thing – they can still be paid," she said.

However, according to the union, paying the salary of striking teachers shows the goodwill of the school.

"As for paying wages during a strike, yes, you do not have to, but you are not forbidden from doing so even if your contract is suspended for the duration of the strike. The payment of wages is subject to the goodwill of the employer, and a number of local authorities have also expressed their willingness to do so during the strike," Isat said.

"Here, a comparison could be made with employers who do not withhold or pay the difference in salary for the period during which their employee is undergoing [Defense Forces] breservist training," he added.

The EHL is planning to start a strike over pay on January 22. No end date has been set.

Protester holding a sign that reads "PARENTS SUPPORT TEACHERS!" at a protest outside the Riigikogu. October 26, 2023. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

At the moment, it is not clear if all municipalities will pay teachers their salaries if they participate. Tallinn said it will do so to support negotiations, but Viljandi and Tartu have not come to a final decision.

EHL has planned an open-ended general strike for January 22.

Government offering 3 percent pay rise

Teachers requested an 11 percent pay rise in 2024. The Ministry of Education suggested a compromise of 8 percent but the coalition said funding can only stretch to 1.77 percent – €31 per month. This offer was later revised to 3.1 percent.

The minimum wage of a full-time Estonian teacher is €1,749 in 2023, the net salary is €1,400.

The Estonian Education Personnel Union is the country's largest organization representing teachers and other education professionals.

A warning strike was held last month. Voltri said 75 percent of all schools and kindergartens participated.

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Editor: Mari Peegel, Helen Wright

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