Romania: working class take lesson from teachers’ general strike

Between 22 May and 12 June, teachers all across Romania took on the government in a three-week general strike, principally over the issue of low salaries. This strike represented a tremendous display of militancy on the part of the Romanian working class. It has profoundly shaken the government, forcing them to make major concessions, and has acted like a jolt to the consciousness of millions of workers, demonstrating the latent power of the working class when it moves in a militant and united fashion. 

The leadership of the three unions representing 150,000 teachers and 80,000 auxiliary staff suspended the strike on 12 June after the government granted a 25 percent pay increase for teaching staff. Although this was a major and costly concession for the government, it fell short of the strikers’ demands, and completely sold out auxiliary and non-teaching staff, who are not included in the pay rise. In order to get the deal through, the union leaders had to go completely over the heads of the rank and file, sparking massive anger.

For those leaders, a reckoning is waiting. But despite this, the struggle has had an electrifying effect on the wider working class. The unfolding strike disrupted all the plans of the ruling coalition, who were forced to delay a scheduled ministerial reshuffle to focus all attention on what was, for them, a serious unfolding crisis. In the end, whilst of course using divisive conditions to split the working class and the unions, they had to nevertheless make very costly concessions.

This has demonstrated to millions of workers, suffering under skyrocketing inflation, that if the unions come together and call all-out action, the bosses can be forced to pay up, and even the government itself can be humbled by the power of the working class.

As we speak, healthcare and railroad workers are set to enter decisive battles, which could lead to generalised action in those sectors as well. Their confidence has been bolstered, as the government is showing signs of weakness. The working class must unite and coordinate these struggles across sectors, in order to take down the system responsible for all of Romania’s problems: capitalism.

A sudden explosion

Demo Image Federatia Sindicatelor din Educație Spiru HaretThis teachers’ general strike came like a sudden explosion / Image: Federatia Sindicatelor din Educație Spiru Haret

This teachers’ general strike came like a sudden explosion, on the back of an 18-year-long period of industrial quiet in the education sector. Conditions for this explosion were long in the making.

Following the 2008 crisis, which plunged the Romanian economy into recession, the National Liberal government of Traian Băsescu imposed a brutal austerity plan to pay off the loans the country took from the IMF. These measures severely cut investment into the public sector. In the education sector, these cuts went to the bone. Now they are being compounded by surging inflation, which remains around 10.6 percent in Romania, but which was even in excess of 16 percent last year. Together, cuts and inflation have eroded teachers’ wages, pushing them down to some of the lowest levels in Europe.

In turn, this has prepared the ground for the mass struggle we’ve seen, with the main aim being a substantial 25 percent pay raise across the whole sector.

Heavy emphasis was placed on raising new teachers’ salaries to a par with other starting professionals, as their current average salary (2,400 lei, or €462 per month) is half that of the national average (4,554 lei, or €945 per month). The unions also demanded investment into crumbling education infrastructure, with staff shortages and lack of materials being commonplace.

On 22 May the strike was launched under the leadership of three education union confederations: the Free Education Trade Unions, Spiru Haret and Alma Mater confederations. This was a significant development full of lessons for millions of workers. It tells them that when the working class comes together across a sector, they can wield awesome power and bring that sector to a standstill.

The ruling class also understood the alarming significance of the strike. From the start, the striking teachers were met by an avalanche of attacks and slanders by the government and the bourgeois press. President Klaus Iohannis accused the striking teachers of deliberately jeopardising national exams and the education of the current student generation. Some news outlets even spread the blatant and cynical lie that the unions were “playing Russia’s game” by going on strike.

But these attacks had failed to divide the teachers from the rest of the working class. A survey has revealed that 73 percent of the Romanian public supported the strike, with many blaming the strike on the handling of the government. International solidarity was forthcoming from education unions in other countries as well, such as the National Education Union (NEU) in Britain. This teachers’ struggle has served to inspire the rest of the working class in Romania and internationally.

The National Liberal (PNL) / Social Democrat (PSD) coalition government has emerged discredited from this whole affair. The planned government reshuffle had to be put on hold, with the prime minister Nicolae Ciucă being forced to delay stepping down until the strike was over.

This re-shuffle had to be delayed because the ruling class was fearing that a rotation of power, in the midst of this general strike, would destabilise and severely weaken the government, at a point when other public sectors are gearing up for struggle.

Discredited and unpopular government

33 years have passed since capitalist restoration in Romania, and yet none of the capitalist governments have been able to solve any of the essential problems of Romanian workers. Austerity, attacks on wages and pensions, and low living standards have forced an estimated 8 million Romanians to move abroad in search of better conditions of life. Meanwhile, the political representatives of the ruling class have been mired in corruption scandals, sparking mass movements throughout the last decade.

Both of the main parties in Romania – the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Social Democratic Party (PSD) – aim to manage capitalism at the expense of workers. In 2021, they entered into a coalition with each other, and this year proceeded to reshuffle so that both could have a turn ruling.This reshuffle replaced the PNL Prime Minister with PSD’s Marcel Ciolacu, but there remains very little enthusiasm for the new ministry. This was underlined by a new poll that revealed 49 percent of Romanians believe nothing will change under this new government, while 34 percent believe they will get worse. 

The lack of a political expression for the mounting discontent of the working class, which is ever piling up under the domestic and worldwide economic crises, coupled with example of large strike waves in Britain, and above all in France, have all served to push workers in Romania towards increasing militancy on the industrial front over the last year.

This militancy was reflected in the protests that took place across the country during the strike. As many as 15,000 marched in the capital Bucharest, with chants like “Thieves”, “We dare”, and “Dignity” revealing the deep-seated anger of the teachers, as well as a growing awareness of their huge power when united and mobilised.

The end of the strike – but not the struggle!

As mentioned, the teachers’ strike was suspended on 12 June, after the leadership had agreed to a deal that granted the 25 percent pay rise to teaching staff, but not to the 80,000 auxiliary and non-teaching staff that accompanied them in the strike. The fact that the government conceded the 25 percent pay rise is a testament of the threat that the strike posed to the government and its plans. But we must stress that this deal also reveals the cowardice of the bureaucracy at the helm in the unions. 

Romania strike Image FSLIAs the strike progressed, the teachers were growing ever more confident in their strength / Image: FSLI

As the strike progressed, the teachers were growing ever more confident in their strength. They were willing to go on indefinitely, until all their demands were met. This deal was therefore accepted behind their backs, leading to a feeling of betrayal among many activists.

Many among the rank-and-file, outraged by this deal that they rightly see as a divisive wedge between teaching and non-teaching staff, have been calling for the union leaders’ resignation and removal, with a petition online gathering around 3,000 signatures. Meanwhile, in Suceava county, the teachers have continued to remain out on strike, and held a protest on the day the deal was announced, denouncing the leadership and chanting, “We are not giving up!”

Temporary demoralisation among a layer after such a sell out will be natural, but we must emphasise: this is not the end of the struggle, it is only the beginning! Some radical activists have talked about leaving these unions and forming new, radical, militant unions. But this would be a mistake, as it would separate the most radical layers of workers from the mass of the workers, just as the working class is beginning to move. Instead, we must pose the need for a fighting leadership, and clear out all those bureaucratic elements that lack confidence in the power of the workers.

The great service rendered by this teachers’ strike is that it bolstered the rest of the class struggle in Romania, injecting confidence into other public sector layers in their own strength. The strike wave is increasing in Romania as a result.

The railway workers, after years of privatisation and low wages, are set to mobilise on 26 June, and begin a general strike on 1 July if their demands are not met. Healthcare workers, who openly declared their solidarity with the teachers, have announced a general strike to coincide with that of the railway workers. Even the police unions have staged protests against the government, revealing deep cracks in the bourgeois state.

We can see that the teachers still have a large role to play. Teachers must build upon the militancy they have displayed, and conduct a struggle against the leadership to democratise the union’s structures. There is a clear desire of the rank-and-file to continue until all demands are met. Therefore, the strike should be resumed, and no deal should be accepted until all demands are granted to all members. The strike ends when the workers say it ends!

Co-ordinate the struggles! Kick out capitalism!

The coordination of the education union confederations has been the most successful factor in this strike, and the reason it lasted as long as it did. In the midst of this ramping up of the class struggle, coordination across all public sector unions is essential.

This swelling wave of strike action across Romania poses a threat to an increasingly discredited government, particularly if the workers extend their unity in action from the education sector, across healthcare, the railroads and all other parts of the public sector.

Implicit in the situation is the possibility of a public sector general strike against the government. But the fight for a successful general strike to bring down the government poses the question of a fighting, revolutionary leadership in the workers’ movement.

Capitalist restoration remains a failure in Romania. The working class must fight against capitalism, and for the socialist transformation of society on the basis of workers’ democratically controlling society.

The comrades of the International Marxist Tendency are fighting for this end in Romania and all across the world. We invite you to join us in this task today.

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