Thinking outside the box
In the year’s first round of collective bargaining which bodes ill for labour relations as a whole, government representatives and teacher unions seem totally deadlocked while society at large watches helplessly with a punctual start to classes starting to look almost miraculous — perhaps it is time to start questioning both the reduction of education to a pay dispute and the indifference of the general public to this key issue. Until now (or perhaps until the traumatic stagnation in Argentina’s PISA rankings last December) there was a tendency to assume that the solution was throwing money at the problem in the form of six percent of Gross Domestic Product, no mean achievement. But other governments in the region have taken a more pro-active approach — one good example is Ecuador’s (despite its setbacks in Sunday’s municipal voting), which prioritizes academic standards in general and teacher evaluation in particular (President Rafael Correa even headed personally a march in favour of the latter). And in various Latin American countries civil society has been more pro-active in forcing the population at large to pay more attention to education — Brazil, Chile and Mexico would all be examples here.
Turning to the pay dispute, the differences seem beyond any consensus — the teachers want general increases of 35-42 percent with a 61- percent rise in the pay floor while the government is talking about 22-23 percent staggered throughout the year in three phases. Neither the government’s abrupt sincerity about inflation in the week preceding the collective bargaining nor the successful blackmail of mutinous provincial police forces last December help in this context. But perhaps the root problem is the sheer size of Argentina’s teacher population at almost a million (950,000) — with such an enormous divisor, even six percent of GDP hardly suffices for decent salaries. Here the government’s insistence on attendance (offering a 2,000-peso bonus or 26 percent in total) is important. In union eyes, a teacher need not be in the classroom to be recognized as such and paid — thus, for example, if a supply teacher has filled in for a maternity leave, the colleague replaced can always have another child. But the successive accumulation of auxiliary teachers on top of core educators, generation after generation, has made the educational workforce impossibly large.
The collective bargaining of teacher pay is insoluble within its own context — a broader framework is needed.