Hungary: teachers’ unions win court case on strike

published 2 August 2022 updated 3 August 2022

The Syndicat des Enseignants de Hongrie (PSZ-SEH) and the Teachers' Democratic Union of Hungary (PDSZ), both affiliated to Education International, have had the strike that they organised in January 2022 for a pay raise for teachers and education workers recognised as legal by the National Supreme Court.

In the autumn of 2021, the joint PSZ-SHE and PDSZ strike committee spent months negotiating with government representatives to get a pay raise for teachers and education workers, but could not get their demands accepted.

Legal warning strike

Faced with mounting discontent among workers in the sector, the two organisations decided to organise a two-hour warning strike on 31 January 2022, in which almost 27,000 took part. The strikers wore checked shirts, a symbol of protest in Hungary since the 2016 teachers' revolt.

While the court of appeal had ruled the strike illegal, in early July 2022, the Supreme Court - called the Curia in Hungary - ruled that the warning strike was legal. “Its ruling can no longer be appealed, and this proves that we must always use all levels of legal redress to get what we want,” said Zsuzsa Szabó, President of the PSZ-SEH.

Widespread support among the population

On 31 January, much of civil society supported the strikers, while the government's anti-strike propaganda proved ineffective, she said. During the two-hour strike, from 8 to 10 a.m., parents did not take their children to kindergarten or school. One of the trade union confederations also organised a car demonstration in the capital to support the education workers’ demands.

The government did not give up, however, Szabó said, as in February further restrictions were brought in to prevent a strike. But the new regulations had the opposite effect to what the government intended. The PSZ-SEH leader pointed out that “almost 40,000 workers participated in the indefinite strike that started on 16 March 2022, more than ever before in the history of strikes since the 1990 regime change in Hungary. Despite the restrictions, many colleagues did not return to work for several days to make it clear that the right to strike is a fundamental workers’ right.”

On the eve of the parliamentary elections in early April, the strike committee suspended industrial action to avoid being accused by the government of an attempt to influence the outcome of the elections. The PSZ and the PDSZ declared their intention to continue negotiations with the new government with a view to organising the strike, if their legitimate demands were not accepted.

The Hungarian government is sacrificing the future of children

“It seems that the former-new Orbán government has not changed its way of doing things,” explained Szabó. “The aim is still not to find solutions for the fundamental problems of education, which are jeopardising or even sacrificing the future of children and students.”

She believes that young people don’t want to become teachers because the salaries are so low, while qualified teachers at the beginning of their career are leaving the sector.

She also said that the majority of teachers in Hungary are over 50. The workforce is shrinking and there are still many more teachers retiring than young ones entering the profession.

“In kindergarten, primary and secondary schools, the education system is already facing a shortage of 15,500 teachers, so soon there will be no one to teach the pupils. Pupils' rights are being fundamentally violated: they are not receiving a quality education, which jeopardises their further education and their individual well-being (in many schools unqualified teachers are being recruited, replacements are not provided, sometimes a music teacher replaces a maths teacher, etc.),” she stressed.

Teaching salaries too low

Currently, the gross salary of a teacher at the beginning of his or her career (including the supplement) is 312,000 Hungarian forints (785 euros), or 207,000 Hungarian forints (520 euros) net. “This is demeaning, as if a teacher were to receive a single 500 euro note and must give change. With such a pay level, the profession is not attractive, young people cannot start a family, cannot get a bank loan for a house”, said an angry Szabó.

She went on to say that the government has not increased basic wages in 2022 either, only giving a sectoral wage supplement of 10 per cent and promising the same for the next two years. Moreover, even this increase depends on the outcome of negotiations with the European Union, and with inflation soaring, wages are steadily losing value.

Moreover, as teachers' salaries are only 58-60 per cent of the average salary of other graduates in Hungary, the PSZ-SEH is taking action to bring this ratio up to 90 per cent, given that the workload and the number of contact hours in the classroom are higher than ever.

Szabó warned that “if no substantive decision is taken by the start of the school year in September, more teachers will leave the profession because of salaries, which will lead us to the collapse of public education.”