WARSAW, Poland -- Teachers in Poland went on an indefinite nationwide strike Monday to demand higher pay, after days of talks with the government failed to meet the demands of a majority of teachers unions.
The strike by school and kindergarten teachers is the first such widespread action by Poland's chronically underpaid educators since 1993, when matriculation exams for high school graduation had to be canceled in many schools.
Warsaw city officials said some 80% percent of schools were closed on Monday. Preliminary figures from other regions showed that up to 90% of schools were affected in some areas, although Education Ministry figures said that 48.5% of schools nationwide were on strike at noon. There are almost 400,000 schoolteachers in Poland and some 4.5 million school students.
The go-ahead for the protest was given by the main teachers unions, the ZNP, after last-ditch talks with the government failed Sunday night. Only the small pro-government Solidarity union accepted the government's proposals and was not on strike.
The teachers were partly spurred into action by their anger that the government as part of its election campaign has offered financial boosts to families, businesses and, most recently, to farmers for their pigs and cows, but not to the education sector. The spending policy has led the government to widen the budget deficit this year.
Slawomir Wittkowicz, head of the Trade Unions Forum, said that "in the past two weeks money has been found for everyone, not only for humans, but there is no money for the teachers."
The unions were originally demanding monthly raises of 1,000 zlotys ($260) and improvements to the salary system. Negotiators said they were willing to accept a compromise, but found the government's offer unacceptable.
Slawomir Broniarz, head of the ZNP, said the proposals were far below expectations and boiled down to more working hours for teachers.
The government argued it had been raising teachers' earnings since 2018 and would speed up that process and increase salaries, while at the same time reorganizing the system of pay to increase the number of classes taught, to 24 hours from the current 18 hours per week.
Protesting educators interviewed on private TVN24 said the strike is not only for pay but also for their dignity, because they cannot support their families.
Teachers' average net monthly earnings range between 1,800 zlotys and 3,000 zlotys ($470 to $780.) They get some additional pay for being in charge of a specific class.
Many schools, with "Strike" signs on their gates, were closed to students Monday. Kindergartens and elementary schools offered care if parents had nowhere to safely leave their children.
Reactions among parents ranged from support and understanding to disappointment, especially due to the additional stress for children readying for crucial tests.
"I absolutely support their strike. They are really earning peanuts for a job that involves responsibility and knowledge," said Tomasz Pietka, father of a 4th-grader in Warsaw.
Deputy Prime Minister Beata Szydlo appealed Monday for renewed talks and for consideration of the students and their upcoming exams.