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SDE leader: Ministry bonuses could be utilized to fund teacher wage hikes

SDE leader and Interior Minister Lauri Läänemets.
SDE leader and Interior Minister Lauri Läänemets. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The coalition Social Democratic Party (SDE) has again approached its partners in government on how €10 million needed to boost teachers' wages might be found, in an eleventh-hour move ahead of a teachers' strike due to start Monday.

SDE suggested that canceling bonuses paid to ministry officials for this year might free up the funds required.

The party's leader, Interior Minister Lauri Läänemets, told ERR that: "At the end of last year, a relatively large number of various awards and bonuses were paid in the public sector, at various ministries. If we make proportional cuts in operating costs at each ministry, it would be viable to find this €10 million, via this small saving in operational costs."

"Such modest savings at each ministry would not hamper the operation of any ministry," Läänemets added.

The required €10 million, to be precise €10.8 million, would also facilitate a start to negotiations on teachers' collective agreement, meaning wage rises for the following three years, a core demand from teachers ahead of the strike.

Läänemets said a consensus within the coalition existed sufficiently for negotiations to then start.

"It appears to me here that there is a common vision within the coalition government, to the extent that the minister of education can re-commence talks, by involving local governments, and in talking about a reform plan for the network of schools also," Läänemets went on.

Läänemets said the above proposal had not been agreed upon with coalition partners as of Sunday, with the strike due to start Monday.

The minister added that the proposal will be on the table at a coalition council meeting, also on Monday.

Since the proposal is certainly to be under discussion, Läänemets said he hoped that the strike could be confined to just the one day, after work went on over the weekend to find a last-minute compromise.

He said: "We made efforts not only on Sunday, but also on Saturday, to fend off the strike."

"However, it seems that this strike is certain to start tomorrow (ie. Monday – ed.). If we can come to an agreement tomorrow, then ideally it would be the case that the strike would in actuality just be for one day," the minister continued.

Läänemets also noted the potential disruption the planned strike could cause, particularly if it were to drag on for several days, with kindergarten teachers having pledged to come out on strike from Wednesday, for three days, in solidarity with the general teaching staff strike.

This would mean working parents with small children having to stay at home.

"Since the kindergarten support strike would only start on Wednesday, it would be especially painful, as leaving small children at home alone is not viable," the minister said.

"The greatest impact on society would thus be prevented [by confining the strike to Monday]," Läänemets added.

At its regular cabinet meeting last Thursday, the Reform-Eesti 200-SDE coalition was unable to reach agreement on the teacher wage increase issue, dashing hopes that the impasse might be resolved before the start of the following week.

The Estonian Education Personnel Union (EHL), the main teachers' union, has called for a baseline teacher wage of €1,835 per calendar month gross for this year.

This is calculated to cost the state budget €10.8 million for 2024.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) had tasked Minister of Education Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200) with finding that €10 million from within her own administrative area; SDE and Eesti 200 have, however, tended towards a pan-ministry solution, such as the one proposed by Läänemets above.

The EHL called out a strike at general education schools from Monday, January 22, with a three-day solidarity strike at kindergartens and vocational schools, starting from Wednesday, January 24.

Most schools in Estonia are run by local governments, and as things stand striking teachers are set to continue to be paid by these municipalities, during striking action. Their colleagues in state run schools, however, will reportedly not be recompensed during any strike.

The decision to strike is being made by teachers at each individual school, though in Tallinn alone, as of last Friday over 3,300 municipality-run school staff were due to go out on strike from Monday.

A strike of this magnitude, particularly affecting education, an area highly prized in a country which has regularly topped PISA rankings in recent years, and where strike action more broadly is less common than in many Western European nations, is an unusual event. The last large-scaled strike of educators in Estonia took place back in 2012, and lasted for three days.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Marko Tooming

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