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Teachers' union chief: Increasing signs that strike may be longer

Reemo Voltri.
Reemo Voltri. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Signs that a teachers' strike which begins Monday will last for "several weeks" are increasingly evident, the head of the main teaching union in Estonia says.

Reemo Voltri (pictured), chair of the Estonian Education Personnel Union (EHL) also said that the ruling Reform-led coalition has somewhat buried its head in the sand through the saga, and expressed hopes that a deal could be reached which would head off a lengthy strike.

Nonetheless as things stand, many schools have informed parents of pupils that the strike will last five days, Voltri said, as things stand it looks set to last longer than that.

Appearing on Vikerraadio's "Vikerhommik" Monday morning, Voltri said: "The strike has to last for some weeks."

The majority of schools in Estonia are municipality-run, and ahead of the strike, it had been reported that striking teachers would continue to be paid during the period of the strike action.

However, if the strike runs for a longer period, Voltri added, "whether wages will be paid to teachers during that time depends on the agreement reached after the strike is over."

Another consideration for the municipalities is when and how to cover those parts of a course syllabus missed out during the strike.

"It is reasonable for the teachers and management to come to an agreement that course units not completed during the strike will be taught at a later date, and if a teacher does extra work for this, they will be remunerated," he continued.

"If a municipality chooses not to teach accordingly, that is their right, but then that municipality would need to explain to parents why they are penalizing the schoolchildren."

While the current situation may not have come as a surprise to Minister of Education Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200), who has been searching for a solution, nor to coalition partner the Social Democrats (SDE), who have been doing the same, Voltri noted that the largest coalition party, Reform, does not seem to want to admit to the scale of the issue.

"The larger portion of the government, i.e. the Reform Party, does not want to admit the magnitude of the problem. One portion of the government has decided that one segment of society must be shown its place – that 'we are in power, and we will show you your place,'" he continued.

The main underlying cause of the strike, Voltri added, is a shortage of teachers in Estonia, something which he said jeopardizes the quality of education in the coming years.

"The number of unqualified teachers is rising each year. If we let the quality of education descend into free fall, economic growth and tax revenues will not enter the state budget later, in any other way than tax hikes," he added, joining the dots to another major point of controversy surrounding the current coalition.

As of Sunday, just under 9,500 teachers in general education had declared they would be coming out on strike for an unspecified time period, while this figure could almost double to over 18,000 once teachers come out on a solidarity strike, from Wednesday.

This mainly concerns kindergarten and vocational schools teachers, with their strike period set to last three days (ie. to Friday).

Voltri said he thought that the total figure of those on the teaching strike could in fact exceed the 20,000-mark.

Overall: "Three quarters of teachers are on strike, excluding Ida-Viru County," Voltri said.

As for the difference here, the EHL chief said: "Estonian-speaking teachers there already get 1.5 times the [standard] wage, while Russian-speaking teachers are more afraid about their jobs."

Voltri nonetheless expressed hopes that an agreement will be reached, that the strike will not be long-lasting, and that schoolchildren will be able to return to learning.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Urmet Kook

Source: Vikerraadio, interviewers Kirke Ert and Sten Teppan.

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