The nationwide teachers' protests unfolding in the recent months in Hungary have become a target of the ruling FIDESZ-Christian Democrat alliance, which has successfully attempted to contain the widespread general strike, using COVID-19 sanitary restrictions as a pretext and by labelling it a “campaign act of the Left”.
With an ongoing war in a neighbouring country and the general elections coming up this Sunday, Hungary’s nationwide teachers’ protests unfolding in recent months have become a target of the ruling FIDESZ-Christian Democrat alliance, which has successfully attempted to contain the widespread general teachers’ strike by issuing a decree prescribing obligatory teaching services using COVID-19 sanitary restrictions as a pretext, thus making the strike practically invisible and labelling it a “campaign act of the Left”. What further underlines the severity of the situation is that certain church-run schools have also participated in the protests, despite the close ties the Government has with a few churches and the loyalty it expects in return.
What has led thousands of otherwise quietly law-abiding teachers to engage in civil disobedience and/or to strike despite deductions from their salaries and potential retaliation accompanied by open condemnation from governing body members and a large part of the public who are manipulated by Government media is their systemic poverty due to their humiliatingly low salaries; the administrative burdens on them that are enforced by the centralised education system; the sometimes unpaid extra hours they are forced to work; the lack of intellectual freedom resulting from their restricted choice of teaching manuals; the curriculum which, at several points, has been adjusted to the governmental ideology; the dramatic drop in the numbers of teachers and teacher trainees; and the curtailing of their democratic rights - such as going on strike.
Even with the Government trying hard to downplay the numbers, 20 000 out of 115 000 primary and secondary school teachers went on a warning strike on 31 January, and 15 000 did so on 16 March, according to Zoltán Maruzsa, State Secretary for Public Education. These figures just show the tip of the iceberg.
According to Decree 36/2022 (II. 11.), issued in early February, 50 % of students’ classes and all classes of final-year students must still be held. This means the public would hardly notice a strike even if one were held, whereas the day spent on strike would be deducted from the striking teacher’s salary. To protest, teachers of schools all over Hungary resorted instead to civil disobedience throughout the second half of February.
Many refrained from actually striking due to the timing so close to the outbreak of the war in Ukraine and the upcoming elections in Hungary. The negotiations between the teachers’ unions and the Government had been meant to start in 2020; they were then postponed by the pandemic and resumed last October, with the Government’s delay tactics stretching out the establishment of the legal framework for any strike for months.
Deplorable working conditions – taking home toilet rolls from work
Teachers at the beginning of their careers earn salaries based on the 2014 gross minimum wage for skilled workers, around 695 EUR monthly, which, along with an allowance for professionals in the sector, adds up to around 835 EUR gross per month. This means take-home pay is 555 EUR per month, the second-worst salary for teachers among the OECD countries and less than that of a beginning ALDI cashier. With this amount of money a teacher can decide to either eat or pay rent, but cannot do both.
One of the teachers’ unions, the PDSZ, recently published an open letter addressed to Prime Minister Orbán, whose mother used to be a teacher herself. In this outcry, a brand-new teacher deplored struggling to make ends meet half a year after earning a Master’s degree, taking home 428 EUR monthly in 2021 and paying 321 EUR monthly for rent and utilities in a mouldy basement flat, surviving on pasta and rice. “I have sometimes taken toilet rolls from the teachers' toilet because I didn't have money to buy any for home,” the letter says.
At the top of the career ladder, after 42 years of work, the net salary is around 1 000 EUR per month.
“Why are teachers always complaining with their three-month summer holiday? They should work on the assembly line to find out what work is!”
A teacher’s obligatory weekly teaching hours are between 22 and 26 (including discrepancies, i.e., getting paid the same amount for 22 hours as for 24 or 26); this does not cover preparation time and obligatory substitution work.
The problem is that teachers’ salaries are still based on the minimum wage of 2014 (around 272 EUR) and do not include the cost-of-living increase of the current minimum wage (as of January 2022 this is 260 000 HUF, i.e. around 706 EUR), which has almost doubled since then, resulting in inequalities between teachers and other labour segments. This explains how, in 2019, a skilled worker could earn more than a beginning teacher with a Bachelor’s degree.
The undignified situation has inspired several artists and sketch producers, such as Palóc Videotéka. This is a YouTube channel run by two Hungarian filmmaker friends who publish short films often reflecting current topics in a sarcastic way. The name Palóc refers to their place of origin, Balassagyarmat, also known as the capital of the Palóc people, a Hungarian ethnographic group living in Northern Hungary. Their sketch “Become a Teacher! (Honest Advert)” revolves around the job’s administrative burdens, a curriculum that renders freedom of thought unnecessary, and payment that is so low a teacher can only afford to live in a tent - but at least does so with a view of the Danube, in the sketch. The lack of societal respect for teachers is depicted in the video with people commenting aloud in the style of social media commentary surrounding the teachers’ protests: “Why are teachers always complaining with their three-month summer holiday? They should work on the assembly line to find out what work is!”
Several church-run schools standing with the strike
Although in Hungary the state and a couple of selected churches are thoroughly intertwined, teachers from numerous church-run schools have still participated in the civil disobedience and strike. As the former prorector for Hungarian Affairs at Central European University, Zsolt Enyedi, recently put it in an interview with the Review of Democracy[i], “Orbán’s style of Christian democracy is the very opposite of what we know as Christian Democracy.”
This is not the first time members of certain church-run schools have expressed disagreement with Hungary’s educational politics. In early 2020, just before the beginning of the pandemic, the New National Curriculum (NAT) was introduced to the greatest surprise of the concerned stakeholders. During the widespread protest by educational bodies, unions and teachers’ groups, some church-run schools, along with other elite secondary schools, openly criticised the curriculum’s hectic introduction, which lacked any prior, substantial consultation. The Piarist Secondary School published a statement about the crisis in education with over a thousand signatures of teachers from various church-run schools. Their voices were downplayed by the Government as “trifling”. According to Catholic media expert István Gégény, many teachers did not dare sign the statement in fear of potential retaliation.
“I’ll slap you so hard, you'll end up in the Ming dynasty”
Hundreds of teachers from church-run schools have now protested, but not all of them have received backing from their employers. Some, like the administrator responsible for education at the Hungarian Lutheran Church, Márta Varga, have assured all teachers (striking or not) of their support, while others, such as the Hungarian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, condemned the strike as election propaganda, sparking outrage from the spokesperson for the Hungarian Jesuits, Szilárd Szőnyi, in a blog entry, as follows:
“I myself wondered whether it was fortunate that the action took place a few days after the invasion of Ukraine, or whether the trade unions were not also serving political ends when they announced the strike would happen during the election campaign. (…) However, (…) two years ago, when Catholic teachers dared to make professional proposals about the National Curriculum at the initiative of the Piarists, both well before and after the election campaign, they received such a vulgar Government response from the relevant ministry that the slap sent them back to the Ming dynasty. Tell me, what is the right time and situation for a sensible, responsible, negotiated response?”
Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.
This was the inscription on the banner held by teachers from the Budapest-Fasor Lutheran Secondary School referencing the reformer Martin Luther when they resorted to civil disobedience in February. English teacher Katalin Fabiny told the Christian blog Kovász Közösség: “Luther taught freedom of conscience and said it is not good for one to do what is against their conscience. (…) We know that standing up for this movement can have consequences for us, but we want to show our solidarity with schools that are not as fortunate as we are. Church schools are in a much better position in this regard, because we are, after all, looked after by our institutional provider, and not every school in the country can say the same. We would like to show solidarity with all those who are on strike, also so that they can go on strike.”
Maths-physics teacher Éva Izsa added: “If the right to strike can be taken away from us with the stroke of a pen, that also paints a pretty alarming picture for our students’ futures. (…) We have to teach them that sometimes they do have to stand up for themselves.”
[i] “The Review of Democracy, or RevDem, is an open platform to discuss, analyze, reflect on, and develop possible solutions to the challenges to democracy across the globe today. The journal is published by the CEU Democracy Institute.” https://democracyinstitute.ceu.edu/reviewofdemocracy