In the Land of the Obedient and Insolent

There has been talk in the public for some time about the intention of education workers to go on strike, and yesterday that strike officially began. In this way, educational workers are trying to fight for the government to fulfill its obligations from the signed Branch Collective Agreement and increase their salaries, which, according to that document, should have been increased at the beginning of this year.

The salaries of educational workers, of course, are not the only problem in education. However, fulfilling the obligation from the Branch Collective Agreement, whether it is a hot potato inherited from the previous Government or not, is the task of this Government, which has obviously overlooked it, but also does not make enough effort to find appropriate solutions.

The beginning of the strike was preceded by a series of meetings at the Ministry of Education, Science, and Innovation that ended without success. This was also contributed to by the Minister of Finance and the Prime Minister, who did not consider this problem and the representative union worthy enough to allocate their time and engage in dialogue with them. The issue of the announced strike in education should have garnered the greatest attention not only from the public or the most directly affected children, parents, and guardians, but precisely from the highest officials of the executive branch of government. Obviously, to the Prime Minister, Minister of Finance, and numerous Vice Presidents of the Government, all other meetings and numerous travels filling the Government’s activity calendar were more important than addressing the problem in one of the pillars of societal development.

The behaviour of the Minister of Education, Science, and Innovation is also inexplicable, otherwise left hanging by the Government, to call school directors to a “disciplinary” meeting before meeting with union representatives, if there was indeed a sincere intention to resolve the issue with the unionists later that day. Additionally, it is rational and inexplicable that on the day the strike began, procedures were initiated because, as claimed by the Ministry, the strike was illegal. Finally, there is no explanation for the falsification of data on the number of schools where allegedly regular classes are taking place when the strike is ongoing.

Without going into detail about procedures, I note that striking is a legitimate and legal right to express dissatisfaction, which as such cannot be denied. It is true, however, that the right to strike can be limited, as provided by the Constitution of Montenegro, for employees in the military, police, state organs, and public service, in order to protect the public interest. However, limiting is not the same as denying.

How important are educators to us?

Obviously not enough. Educational workers have been facing pressures for too long, primarily those that come through political appointments, then pressure from superiors, but also from parents who would like to hang one more “Luča” on their wall. Nobody cares about the conditions in education, and surprise sets in when educators raise this issue. The change of government did not bring new winds, although many in education expected them.

The Prime Minister’s political father, Zdravko Krivokapić, marked the first days of his mandate by shouting at the faces of educational workers, who, instead of turning their backs and leaving, respected his position and listened to his inappropriate speech. Their patience was also tested during the tenure of his minister, Vesna Bratić. Her successor, Miomir Vojinović, politically lived on maintaining the status quo and hinting at promises that things would get better, which was strengthened by signing the Branch Collective Agreement. Thus, Abazović’s Government merely shifted this issue from itself to the Government they knew would follow soon. The wheel had to break somewhere, although it is a complex and inherited problem, but that does not justify the fact that the Prime Minister has a condescending attitude toward an important sector of education.

What next?

Salaries, despite their importance and undeniable need for increase, cannot be the solution to all problems in the education system. We are aware that even the increase in salaries for doctors, which are now among the highest in the country, according to the latest CG Pulse, did not necessarily result in better healthcare. Again, it is interesting that these salaries attracted new doctors from the neighboring countries and influenced, to some extent, the desire of our doctors to leave.

Such an effect is needed in education as well, which must retain quality staff and attract new ones, while at the same time, through strict licensing procedures and evaluations, dealing with the bad ones.

But, I believe this is also the moment when educators, in rare moments of consolidation, invisible during many years, must present other demands, which are an undeniable need of the educational system, and which they know very well.

Namely, even if and when their salaries become “Luxembourgish,” it will not be much easier to enter a classroom with 30+ students and give each of them due attention for 45 minutes. It will not be easier with a higher salary to deal with parental pressures to ensure straight A’s or with politically appointed directors whose focus is not on improving the educational institution they manage but on channeling the interests of those who appointed them and the structures associated with them. It will not be much easier with a higher salary to deal with violent students, who would rather beat up a teacher than accept a failing grade or an unexcused absence. Even with a higher salary, the uncreative administrative work will not decrease; it will continue to steal parts of classes and teachers’ time that could be used later.

Finally, even with a higher salary, it will not be easier to deal with the erosion of the reputation of the teaching profession in society, and it is in everyone’s interest not to allow that. And let’s not forget, the greatest responsibility lies with those who hold the levers of power.

Damir Suljević, Programme associate at the Centre for Civic Education (CCE)