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October 20, 2014
Thursday, March 20, 2014

Summer ending without classes

The teacher strikes are starting to look insoluble, especially in Buenos Aires province where neither compulsory conciliation nor Governor Daniel Scioli’s unilateral decreed pay increase of 30.9 percent has secured even an hour of classes this year for the province’s 3.5 million schoolchildren. But while only Chubut joins Buenos Aires province as an extreme case of total shutout, there are problems across the country. While there were classes in 10 of the nation’s 24 districts yesterday, only San Luis has escaped strike action altogether this month. If the most rational teacher attitude might seem to reject inadequate pay offers without denying children their right to education, only in San Juan is continued conflict compatible with classes — in all other of the 15 provinces without a pay settlement there is no school. As Scioli has pointed out, this kind of indefinite strike is rare enough in any sector, never mind one as important as education.

But the fact that this kind of strike is unusual elsewhere does not rule out the teachers having a copycat effect on other trade unions in this year’s first round of collective bargaining. Now that the pay offers to the teachers have edged up to the region of 30 percent, the benchmark UOM metal workers union has started pushing for that percentage while the solution of defending the 25 percent guideline by topping it up with a lump sum (e.g. the 3,000 pesos granted teamsters) is starting to run into legal problems with various rulings against any increases outside the basic salary. The difference between the teachers and most other trade unions is that their employment levels depend on the student population rather than the economic cycle — otherwise there would probably be a lot more strikes without the inhibiting factor of job fears.

The focus of the teacher dispute is almost exclusively the pay increase percentage but in many ways the issue of employment levels is more fundamental. The government’s insistence on an attendance bonus has to be measured against a teacher absentee rate in Argentina of almost 40 percent, which might seem to point to Argentina’s teacher population of almost a million being overmanned on that scale. But there are around two teachers for every three posts, thus explaining much of the absenteeism and also union intransigence. Yet Argentina’s total still doubles the 1.15 percent of full-time teachers in the United States population. This aspect deserves much fuller debate in order to make teachers worthy of their hire.

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