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.

It comes at a sensitive time, just days before crucial end-of-school exams in primary and middle schools, and weeks ahead of this year’s matriculation exams and elections to the European Parliament that are key for the right-wing government. Warsaw city officials said some 77% percent of schools were closed on Monday.

A banner declaring the participation at the indefinite nationwide teachers' pay strike, displayed on the fence of the Primary School number 68 in Warsaw, Poland, on Monday, April 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
A banner declaring the participation at the indefinite nationwide teachers’ pay strike, displayed on the fence of the Primary School number 68 in Warsaw, Poland, on Monday, April 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

The go-ahead for the protest was given by the main teachers unions after last-ditch talks with the government failed Sunday night. Only the small pro-government Solidarity union accepted the government’s proposals and is 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.

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.”

People talk through a fence near a banner, declaring the participation at the indefinite nationwide teachers' pay strike, at the Primary School number 68 in Warsaw, Poland, on Monday, April 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
People talk through a fence near a banner, declaring the participation at the indefinite nationwide teachers’ pay strike, at the Primary School number 68 in Warsaw, Poland, on Monday, April 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

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 main Polish Teachers’ Union, 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.

Banners, declaring the participation at the indefinite nationwide teachers' pay strike, displayed on the fence at the Primary School number 68 in Warsaw, Poland, on Monday, April 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Banners, declaring the participation at the indefinite nationwide teachers’ pay strike, displayed on the fence at the Primary School number 68 in Warsaw, Poland, on Monday, April 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

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.

There are almost 400,000 schoolteachers in Poland, and the unions say that some 90% of them are on strike, although the government says 50% of them declared their readiness to participate. There are some 4.5 million school students.

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.

Striking teachers watch television reports from the nationwide protest action in the teacher's room at the Primary School number 68 in Warsaw, Poland, on Monday, April 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Striking teachers watch television reports from the nationwide protest action in the teacher’s room at the Primary School number 68 in Warsaw, Poland, on Monday, April 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

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.

Deputy Prime Minister Beata Szydlo appealed Monday for renewed talks and for consideration of the students and their upcoming exams.

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