Perspectives | Trade unions

The government vs. the teachers’ union

By - 16.09.2022

It’s the government who has the ultimate responsibility for educational standards.

I don’t recall September 2005 in detail, when I started fifth grade at Tetë Marsi Elementary School in Peja, but I remember that I was a little scared. It was an important moment — we had finished one phase of education and our teacher was replaced by various teachers for different subjects.

My Albanian language teacher happened to be Rrahman Jasharaj.

It did not occur to me then that Jasharaj would become an important figure, not only for me as his student, but also for Kosovar society as a whole. In his future role, he would become a person that everyone would talk about and even insult.

Rrahman Jasharaj is the chairman of the Union of Education, Science and Culture of Kosovo (SBAShK). Currently, he is leading the union in a strike for education workers that has sparked a bitter clash with one of the most widely supported governments since Kosovo’s independence.

Before his union work, Jasharaj had a great influence on my development, and not just educationally. He nurtured my love for books and language. Throughout my education, I have had many teachers; taking into account primary school, secondary school, and university in Prishtina and the United Kingdom, Jasharaj ranks among the best.

He always had a great energy about him. He walked quickly and spoke passionately; his eyes always wide open and his hands moving non-stop as he explained the lessons, often wiping away sweat. During my school years, he was involved in the education union’s branch in Peja. I was not at all surprised when he became the head of the union at a national level in 2014.

When we used to encounter him outside of class, he rarely greeted us. Later on, he told us during class that when he is walking down the street in a hurry, he was usually on his way to the office of a newspaper where he worked a second job to help make ends meet.

New strike, new clashes

On August 25, 2022, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kosovo informed the public about a general strike for increased wages. The teacher’s union, with Jasharaj at the head, joined the strike, an attempt to force the issue on a completely legitimate request, given that wages in the education sector have not increased for 12 years and the high cost of living in Kosovo.

As the public face of these strikes, Jasharaj became the target of various attacks. His goals were described as narrow and political and that he didn’t have the ultimate aim of improving workers’ conditions. Attacks were directed at him on television shows, full of derogatory statements from supporters of the ruling party. There were also harsh comments on social media as part of a humiliation campaign and then eventually physical intimidation from a member of the public on September 5 during a visit to the Ismail Qemali School in Prishtina.

Important members of the ruling party Vetëvendosje (VV) have made public statements against the head of the education union. Among them is Elvis Hoxha, who wrote a post on Facebook stating that Jasharaj “is using the teachers’ strike exactly when sovereignty should be strengthened in the north” and added that “it is unfortunate, the participation of teachers in this strike, which is headed by a member of the Serbian party,’‘ and then suggesting that Jasharaj’s agenda is somehow related to the organization of gangs in the north of Kosovo. Later, Hoxha apologized for the post, although it had already been spread widely.

Prime Minister Albin Kurti, in a press conference after the meeting with Jasharaj on September 11, tried to justify the lack of an agreement with the union by suggesting that the union has other goals outside of the publicly presented demands.

The union’s main demand is for the government to add 100 euros per month to each teacher’s salary until the law on wages comes into force. Meanwhile, at the beginning of this month, the government presented an aid package for public sector employees “in order to mitigate inflation,” which calls for the allocation of an extra 50 euros per month in their salaries.

The attacks on Jasharaj highlight another problem — VV presents itself as a left-wing political organization, an ideology that traditionally protects unions and calls for more rights for workers.

In fact, throughout its years as an opposition party VV supported the unions. When he was in the opposition, Kurti met Jasharaj more than once and promised to support them. Since coming into power, VV has changed its approach to unions, bringing into question their commitment to leftist principles which we are seeing less of in practice than in other areas of governance.

Some of the accusations made on social media and elsewhere are that Jasharaj has gotten rich, that he has a large salary, and that he has profited off the back of his work with the union. He has even been mocked online for his teeth, as if there’s a minimum standard in Kosovo for everyone to have perfect teeth.

I never knew Jasharaj as a rich person. On one of my trips as a student to Prishtina a few years ago, I was waiting for the bus to leave from the station in Peja, early on a weekday morning. As the bus began to move slowly, Jasharaj was the last to get on.

He sat close to me and the conversation flowed. He told me how he had started working at the head of the union and had to go to Prishtina every day. When it came time to pay for the bus ticket, he explained to the conductor, in his passionate way, that he had made a deal with the company so that his daily trips to Prishtina would cost less than the regular price.

Who should be held accountable?

While there are plenty of critics who say the ultimate responsibility for quality education lies in the now striking teachers, the criticism towards the Ministry of Education, led by VV, should be examined closely.

When it comes to the government and the strikers, a series of questions should be asked:

Teachers’ salaries have not been increased for 12 years. Who is responsible for that, the successive governments or the union?

The law on wages has not yet been approved, does the blame lie with the successive governments or the union?

There is a lack of necessary reforms in education, and no clear vision for the sector. Should successive governments or the union be held accountable?

The draft law on wages was never implemented. After its approval in February 2019, the Ombudsman sent it to the Constitutional Court for an assessment of its compatibility with the Constitution. In June 2020, the Constitutional Court found a number of violations in it, causing its implementation to be dragged out mainly due to the frequent changes in governments. Then, the Kurti government did not send the revised draft law to the Assembly in March of this year, despite promises. On September 15, the government released the draft law for public hearing, which marks the beginning of a complicated process that could delay the implementation of the law until next year.

The current government came to power using the slogan “justice and employment.” While its mandate is moving fast, reforms in education and professional training that should be closely related to government policies on employment have not yet materialized.

Although education is considered one of the most important sectors and as having many problems that are difficult to solve, discussions about education are usually only opened right before elections — to gather votes from teachers, a large voting bloc — or in response to the union’s actions.

In the program for the 2021-2025 mandate, the government pledges to take care of teachers, among others, through support for professional development and affordable housing. It also mentions the provision of an assessment and reward model for teachers’ performance. The testing of teachers was one of the government’s proposals, which was rejected by the union.

Teachers, along with the education system, have been left behind in Kosovo, so it is not hard to imagine what the results from testing teachers would be. The assessment of teachers is instead read as a way to put pressure on them and an attempt to suppress opposing voices, which come from the union towards the government.

It’s no coincidence that in public opinion education is only discussed occasionally and there appears to be no serious attempt from the Ministry of Education to intervene in order to improve the situation.

Poor results from Kosovar students on the PISA test is used as an argument against teachers, and thus the union; it is claimed that teachers’ demands for higher salaries are not in accord with the poor teaching results. Ensuring quality in education is not the responsibility of the union, but of the government, namely the Ministry of Education, which is tasked with undertaking reforms to achieve quality education.

Even the union must understand the need for reforms in education and be cooperative, especially in relation to the improvement of the teaching level, but the initiative and concrete actions must come from the government, just as has been promised hundreds of times over the years. Thus, discussions about the quality of education, instead of being channeled through arguments with the union when they express demands or strike, should be done with the aim of improving the sector in general.

At this point, Jasharaj serves Kosovar society well, although indirectly, as a promoter of discussions about education, even more so than the government itself. Regular communication with union groups is the least the government can do and making compromises is necessary.

Beyond the daily discussions about the union or the government’s position regarding the strike, Kosovar society should show greater maturity when choosing whether to align itself with the government or the union. Aside from the debate about teachers’ salaries, this is above all a dispute about workers’ rights, which should extend beyond a certain sector or the lifespan of a government.

Our society urgently needs more substantive discussion about the problems in our education system and the position of teachers in that system.

Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

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