Classes finally resumed this week in Buenos Aires province right at the end of March while national collective bargaining for teachers settled on the same day for a pay increase of almost 29 percent (even if conflict persists in several provinces) but there is little to celebrate. The percentage is far from being the worst part of the precedent with the most ruthless methods being rewarded with the biggest hikes — if not as bad as the mutinous provincial policemen who opened the flood-gates for nationwide looting last December, Buenos Aires province teachers are giving a dangerous lesson in clinching a 30-plus percent pay increase by holding schoolchildren to ransom.
The breakthrough in Buenos Aires province was puzzling because almost a month of deadlock was broken by adding just 800 million pesos to the previous offer of 10.5 billion (raising the starting salary from 3,600 to 5,000 pesos was the main change). But again it is necessary to look beyond the percentages. The teachers gained not so much cash in hand as abandonment of the attendance bonus (a crackdown on moonlighting and high absenteeism rightly defended by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner all last month), not being docked any pay and receiving an implicit green light to repeat the blackmail if inflation exceeds expectations. All this might explain why the teachers accepted apparently minimal concessions but why is the government giving so much away (and not just to teachers but to everybody else with UOCRA building workers also laying claim to 29 percent just one working day after 26.5 percent for UOM metal workers had seemed the new benchmark and with others sure to follow)? One obvious explanation is the weakness of a lame-duck government but a change of priorities looks likelier. Heading off the April 10 general strike called by anti-government labour leaders Hugo Moyano and Luis Barrionuevo and allegedly instigated by the Renewal Front’s Sergio Massa (who took five days to deny responsibility) seems to have replaced incomes policy as the main challenge, at least in the immediate term — this strike seems “condemned to success” (in ex-president Eduardo Duhalde’s phrase) due to its stranglehold on transport but the government refuses to admit defeat, seeking to make it far less general by giving way on the wage front and thus defusing its union support.
But whatever the virtues of these settlements, the governments have found the money to bring the teachers back to school — it is now up to society at large to seek value for that money by showing active interest in the quality of education.