Perspectives | Trade unions

Lessons from the education strike

By - 19.09.2022

The government is undermining workers’ right to strike.

The history of union organization is a story of collective action. It is a story of struggles and conflicts, a fight for higher wages, better working conditions, shorter working hours, safety and protection in the workplace. These demands have been achieved by workers through collective organization. Union organization has had and continues to have strikes as its most effective tool.

On August 25, a few days before the beginning of the new school year, under the umbrella of the United Union of Education, Science and Culture, the teachers of Kosovo went on strike. They are asking for financial support of 100 euros for all education workers, in order to cope with inflation until the Law on Wages is approved. They are also asking to be included in the drafting of this law. Meanwhile, the government has initiated a support package, which calls for the allocation of 50 euros per month for all public officials until the end of this year. The strikers consider this package insufficient.

In addition to not fulfilling the strikers’ demands, the government and Prime Minister Albin Kurti have also used threats and insults against the trade unionists. Such behavior can limit the real freedom of trade union organizations, beyond the government’s formal right to do so. The strike sparked a more nuanced discussion about the role of trade unions in our country as opposed to focusing on which organization is more powerful.

One of the reasons why this discussion has sparked such interest is because this strike has paralyzed the public education system, which has directly affected a large proportion of the population. This situation worries many citizens because they are involved in the overall feeling of crisis.

During crises, and when fearing crisis, people make emotional judgments. Putting reason aside, they tend to defend positions that would usually be contrary to their principled beliefs. For example, they support threats, often retaliatory, made by the government against unionists, such as the suspension of strikers’ wages, which was done in the hope that they would end the strike and open schools.

This situation must be seen from the viewpoint of the striking workers and the employer’s behavior towards them. Therefore, from the start we should clarify the positions of the involved parties: the government and the prime minister are the employers of public education workers. While they are not the formal employers in a certain sense, as a significant part of their responsibilities are implemented by municipal governments, the government has ultimate financial responsibility, such as for the allocation of wages. This makes the government and the prime minister stakeholders on one side and the unions on the other.

This formal relationship should be recognized in the conversation because it enables further analytical clarification of the reasons for both parties’ current behavior. This helps us to clarify what standard and precedent is set and may be set by the current conflict between government and union, especially with regards to education. Because this is where spears are broken. The unions’ demands and their legitimacy, the government’s offers and the accusations against the union by its supporters are more a means of illustrating my argument, than the reason for this article. In this case, the education union is not in dialogue with the government as a neutral party, even though this would have been true in the vast majority of strikes in democratic countries with an organized working class.

Unions are empowered in times of crisis

Social dialogue and the history of its development, especially in Nordic countries, is necessarily a tripartite dialogue. On one side are the employers, on the other are the workers. The third party is the government, which serves as a mediator, a guarantor for the implementation of agreements and an institutional decision-maker to legalize achievements from social dialogue — amending laws to accommodate progression in the conditions and treatment of workers. This type of tripartite dialogue has been successful in improving workers’ conditions in the countries where it exists, and also in ensuring the longevity of social-democratic governments.

In the teachers’ strike in Kosovo, we don’t have three sides, but only two. It is in the interest of the government and the prime minister to be seen as a neutral party, as arbitrary agents of the public good. However, they are not. They would be if supermarket workers were to go on a general strike. In such a situation, the government would have been a neutral party, mediating an agreement without direct budgetary implications. It would protect the public interest — better conditions for workers and their affordability for businesses.

Without the right to strike, unions end up as organizations that send workers on beach vacations and eventually throw farewell parties for retired workers.

In the case of a teachers’ strike, as an employer, the government’s primary concern is the financial affordability of the strikers’ demands. So far, the government has demonstrated a markedly conservative approach to public finances — insisting on not making changes — sometimes rightly so. However, this approach effectively makes any union demand unaffordable. Unlike progressiveness, which essentially aims for social progress or change, conservatism evokes fear and pessimism. Through the lens of conservatism the crisis is seen as a danger and not as an opportunity. Fear leads people to bring out the pitchforks, which makes resolution impossible.

So far, this fear has only taken the form of exclusion — such as the decision on the minimum wage where the unions were not consulted; the threat of withholding wages, was a main topic of discussion for a long time and an attempt to smear and discredit the union. Each party was in flagrant opposition to the idea of social dialogue. The danger comes from the precedent that this could set.

Excluding unions from social dialogue because they do not agree is an undemocratic act and an undoing of the process. This prevents workers from realizing their rights through collective action, because the right to strike becomes endangered. Without the right to strike, unions end up as organizations that send workers on beach vacations and eventually throw farewell parties for retired workers.

Let’s take as an example the suspension of monthly wages for those striking, which the government threatened them with. In the Law on Strikes there is an ambiguity regarding this issue. The first law on strikes did not allow for withholding wages. However, the law was amended in 2012 and is explicit in Article 18, which states “During the strike, the obligations are suspended, arising from the Labor Contract, including the right to payment and the obligation to work.” However, Article 13 of the same law does not allow taking “disciplinary or material measures” against “strike organizers, strike participants and other employees.”

The question is, what can we call a material measure in terms of this law? Stopping the payment of wages for the duration of a strike is standard in almost every country in the European Union. The eventual payment of strikers comes from the unions’ funds or a fund established especially for the strike. However, beyond legal rigidity, shouldn’t we address this issue more broadly and in accordance with our economic and social circumstances?

What could a union do that is effectively unable to go on strike? How would it fight for better working conditions and higher wages for workers?

Could such a rule apply to our case? The education union may have such an opportunity, as they have a wide membership and can raise funds from their members to fund the strike. But what about the vast majority of workers in the private sector, most of whom are not unionized? Even if a membership fee existed, it would still be a challenge considering the level of salaries in this sector. Therefore, withholding wages in the event of a strike would make striking impossible.

If the strike would have been impossible, then why would workers need union organization? What use is a union that is effectively unable to go on strike? How would it fight for better working conditions and higher wages for workers? Such a provision in the law on strikes is harmful to union organization now and in the future. It would be easily applicable to sectors that have tens of thousands of employees and significant experience in union organizing, through which strike funding would have been accessible. But, in our conditions, it seems to be unattainable.

Employers — and the government — often say that raising wages is impossible because it would significantly undermine business competitiveness and investment opportunities, especially in times of crisis. One thing must be understood in this regard: unions become attractive and powerful precisely in times of crisis.

In times of high employment and good working conditions, workers are generally satisfied and see no need for union organization. Historically, unions gain significance in times of crisis. Due to market disturbances, there is a tendency for profits to be maintained through the increased exploitation of workers. Similarly, when market disturbances cause inflation, the price of goods in the market increases, which should be accompanied by an increase in the cost of labor. This is not something that happens by itself, but through union intervention.

Using the crisis as justification to exclude unions from social dialogue is unacceptable. As Isabelle Schömann, secretary of the European Confederation of Trade Unions, says, the right to strike is fundamental. As such, it cannot be alienated or suspended due to crises, at least not democratically. This fundamental right is also protected by the World Labor Organization. The declaration adopted at the International Labor Conference in 1998 calls on all member and non-member countries, such as Kosovo, to “respect, to promote and to realize, in good faith and in accordance with the Constitution, the principles of fundamental rights,” which includes freedom of assembly and association.

Without this freedom, without autonomous, representative organizations of employees and workers, that are equipped with the rights and guarantees necessary to advance the rights of their members and the general good, the tripartite principle would be damaged or completely disabled. If this happened, prospects for increased social justice would be severely limited.

The government has made a mistake in its approach to unions because it sees them as hostile organizations. As an employer, but especially as a government, unions should be seen as a partner, as part of the solution and not as a problem. This lesson should have been learned from social-democratic history. A progressive government should have an inclusive democratic approach towards workers and unions.

Feature Image:  K2.0.