WARSAW, Poland -- Teachers from across Poland gathered in Warsaw on Tuesday to demand higher wages in a dispute that is emerging as another political fissure in a deeply divided society.
The protest in front of the Education Ministry comes on the 16th day of a strike that has closed most Polish schools. There have been rallies since the strike started April 8, but Tuesday's was the largest, with teachers arriving by bus from across the country. Organizers said demonstrations were being held in a total of 22 towns and cities.
At Tuesday's protest, the head of Polish Teachers' Union, Slawomir Broniarz, vowed to fight on "for teachers' dignity." One banner said "Let closed schools open people's eyes." Many carried signs of a black exclamation point to signal urgency.
The teachers' strike has emerged as the latest battlefront in a country riven between conservatives and liberals. The divide has played out in frequent demonstrations in recent years over abortion rights and the ruling party's takeover of the court system and state media.
The dispute pits teachers and their supporters against a populist government that is increasing social spending on families, pensioners and farmers but which says it cannot accommodate the teachers' demand for a 30% raise. According to opinion polls, it remains the country's most popular party, suggesting that it is emerging unscathed from the standoff.
Poland has long ranked high in international education rankings, but teachers say standards are falling as low wages push good people out of the profession, with higher paying jobs in the private sector luring them away in a booming economy.
Many are furious that a major educational overhaul by the ruling Law and Justice party, which has included the elimination of middle schools, has added to their work load while wages remain low.
The government's supporters accuse the roughly 500,000 striking teachers of playing politics, noting how anti-government activist groups have rallied to their cause. They accuse the teachers of using children as a political tool by shutting down the schools during end-of-year exams, including university entrance exams.
In an Easter sermon, Gdansk Archbishop Slawoj Leszek Glódz accused the striking teachers of using the children as "hostages" and said the teachers were damaging the "sensitivity and idealism" of the young people.
Teachers earn from around 1,800 zlotys to 3,000 zlotys ($470 to $780) a month, depending on experience. The government is offering 15% raises starting in September and a smaller pay hike next year for an increase in the number of teaching hours.
But the teachers' union says teachers are already working an average of 47 hours per week and have rejected the government's offer.
Many denounce what they see as hypocrisy and insensitivity by the authorities. An aide to the president has said teachers could increase their income instead by having babies, thus qualifying for a program of cash handouts for children that the government is expanding.
The speaker of the Senate, Stanislaw Karczewski, who earns nearly 20,000 zlotys ($5,200) a month, said teachers should work for ideals, not money.
"We actually do work for our ideals, but you also can't live from ideals alone," Patryk Utowka, a 29-year-old elementary school teacher, said during the Warsaw protest, describing the movement as a demand for dignity and respect for the profession.
Utowka said he already works 50 hours a week when he adds up teaching, preparation, grading, meetings with parents and bureaucratic duties, and that the idea of increasing teaching hours was offensive.
"There is a huge bitterness that you can see here that the government is not responding to our requests," Utowka said.