November 20, 2014
School for suspense
Yesterday marked the start of classes for some seven million of Argentina’s 42 million inhabitants — for everybody else education was not so much the “brick in the wall” of the Pink Floyd song as the brick wall of teacher strikes. More than an essential public service, education is the key to any nation’s future. Underpaid as teachers undoubtedly are, their drastic action is thus impossible to support — it would be hard to argue, for example, that City Hall’s extreme incompetence in frustrating the online registration of thousands of small children justifies the even more extreme reaction of denying schooling to pupils of all ages, as is occurring in this metropolis. The right to strike is, of course, enshrined in the law of a democratic Constitution but the open contempt of the compulsory conciliation ordered on Tuesday means that the teachers are entering into a zone of illegality in what should be the valid exercise of a legitimate option.
The deadlock not only stems from the huge difference between the pay increase percentages of the two sides but also from the issue of the attendance bonus, which is worth highlighting further because, rather than an expendable negotiating-chip, it could be the beginning of a solution to an otherwise impossible situation. Our previous editorial on this topic stressed that the sheer size of the divisor (almost a million teachers) made stretching even over six percent of Gross Domestic Product to give decent salaries almost a mission impossible — on Tuesday Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich pointed out that the construction of 2,000 new schools in the last decade (also further increasing the teacher population), millions of netbooks and other investments were further demands on the educational budget. The teacher unions fiercely resist the attendance bonus because they feel that it is aimed against the widespread moonlighting and justified absenteeism of regular teachers, as well as against the accumulated layers of supply teachers, yet it could be the only way to start bringing education numbers under control. But the issue is not only mathematical — in her state-of-the-nation speech on Saturday, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner looked back nostalgically to her own schooldays to highlight the qualitative importance of teacher continuity to follow each child’s progress. The government should thus stick to its guns.
Yet the two sides agree on at least one point — the desirability of moving collective bargaining for teachers to midyear, instead of the unbearable suspense of these last-minute negotiations holding an entire nation hostage as to whether or not classes start.