Teachers and students are on strike against Viktor Orban’s school policies

Vienna No matter how great the resistance that Hungary’s prime minister is facing in the European Union, Viktor Orban reigns almost unchallenged at home. However, one professional group is stubbornly opposed: the teachers.

“Our situation is so bad that we have nothing more to fear,” says Erzsebet Nagy. She was a teacher for 40 years and now works for the PDSZ trade union, which was formed in 1988.
In Hungary, teachers and students have been demonstrating and striking for around a year.

Among them is David Ongjerth, who teaches English and Hungarian literature at a high school in Budapest. “We feel humiliated by the government,” he says. Demonstration trains keep moving through the center of Budapest in particular. On October 23rd there was a rally in the Hungarian capital with 60,000 participants. These days, the actions are reaching a climax: teachers and students are planning various strike actions, and a large-scale demonstration is to take place on January 31st.

The direct trigger of the protests are the low wages. Young teachers, for example, complain that they can hardly afford to live in Budapest – the rental expenses eat up a large part of the salary. According to a current overview by the EU Commission, the starting wages are among the lowest in the federal state.

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The teachers complain that the basic wage has not increased since 2015. In general, many Hungarians have become financially tight. Inflation was 24.5 percent in December, higher than in any other EU country. Food prices have skyrocketed with an average increase of almost 45 percent.

There is a shortage of teachers in Hungary

However, the poor wage situation is only one of the reasons why the teachers are dissatisfied. There is also dissatisfaction with the working conditions. The teachers complain that these have steadily deteriorated in recent years. So overtime would not be adequately compensated.

>> Read here: Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban sets new price caps – and plunges the country into a shortage economy

The EU Commission’s monitoring supports this critical assessment of the school system. According to a report, the shortage of teachers is becoming an increasing challenge in Hungary. Many teachers left the profession after a few years, so that the shortage is steadily increasing, especially in subjects such as mathematics and foreign languages. According to the EU Commission, teachers would have to give more lessons in Hungary than anywhere else in the EU.

The teaching staff is also dissatisfied with the teaching material. She sometimes criticizes that this has an ideological bias and emphasizes Hungarian nationalism, for example. In general, teachers are dissatisfied with the quality of the material. Ongjerth criticizes that the textbooks are “produced too quickly and with little care”.

Demonstrators on a bridge in Budapest

Many schoolchildren were among the protesters.

(Photo: Reuters)

The students demonstrating are also critical of the teaching materials. The state is increasingly restricting the free choice of textbooks. They also want the government to show more respect for teachers and worry that the shortage of teachers could make care worse.

>> Read here: Blockade in the EU Council: Orban gives up his veto – against minimal concessions from the EU

The teachers’ protests are now so loud that Orban’s government can no longer ignore them. As is usually the case when something goes wrong in the country, she blames the international environment and especially the EU. First of all, Chancellor Gergely Gulyas said last year that given the large number of refugee children from Ukraine, it was not the right time to go on strike. Then he promised the teachers higher salaries as soon as the EU finally released the funds from the reconstruction fund.

It now looks as if Hungary could start receiving money from Brussels starting this spring, should the government meet the relevant rule of law requirements by then. The government promptly granted the teachers a salary increase from January of this year. However, this did not soothe the teachers. Only the surcharges have been increased by around ten percent, but not the basic salaries, they say. Therefore, the increase can be canceled at any time.

Victor Orban

A large proportion of Hungarian teachers are not behind the prime minister’s party.

(Photo: Reuters)

In recent years, individual professional groups have repeatedly rebelled against Orban’s policies. Last summer, for example, small entrepreneurs blocked Budapest bridges because the government had changed the tax system to their disadvantage. However, the protest petered out after a short time.

In comparison with the small entrepreneurs, the teachers and students show a lot of perseverance. Nevertheless, mobilization seems to be difficult. “The unions have few paying members,” says teacher Ongjerth. If 20 percent of the teachers take part in the campaigns this week, he sees that as a success. “Teachers have no experience with strikes.”

The political orientation of the demonstrating teachers is diverse. Observers say that among them are voters for the governing party Fidesz. However, the majority is opposed to Orban’s party. However, only a few teachers would strike in the hope of being able to initiate a political realignment in Hungary.

“The unions don’t want to engage in fundamental opposition to Orban,” says employee representative Nagy. “It’s about the school for us, especially since many of our members don’t have much trust in the opposition parties either.”

Meanwhile, the government is taking legal action against the teachers. 15 of them have been released for “civil disobedience” in the past few months. The government has created a law on “minimum services” that teachers are required to provide. Accordingly, the children and young people must be looked after at school even during a strike action, and 50 percent of the lessons must be held. “We have to come up with tricks to go on strike anyway,” says Nagy. Parents are asked not to send their children to school for a few hours.

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