TUNIS, Tunisia — Teachers in Tunisia moved out of their classrooms and into the streets recently, hoping yet another strike would teach a lesson to those who control public education's purse strings.
The April 17-24 strike was the latest move in a long-standing feud that threatens to throw the school calendar so far off that administrators are threatening to declare what they're calling a "gap year." If that happens, elementary and secondary students would neither pass nor fail, nor would they receive any credit for their work this year.
Though teachers resumed classes April 25, they continue to withhold exam results from the first semester as leverage in negotiations and are threatening to withhold the second semester's results as well.
Tunisian teachers staged massive protests late last year and again in February and March, voicing years of frustration and raising an ongoing call for improved wages and increased human and material resources. They are also seeking implementation of a 2011 agreement acknowledging teaching as the second most demanding profession after mining. That classification calls for higher wages and pensions. Teachers are also seeking to lower their retirement age from 60 to 55 after 30 years of service.
The Ministry of Education rejects the teachers' demands as unreasonable in the face of the state's poor financial situation. Many critics say cutbacks in education have been made in response to International Monetary Fund requirements.
The teachers union, the General Syndicate of Secondary Education, is affiliated with the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT). In an April 23 statement, the latter's national administrative body condemned “the government's disregard for the crisis that has been plaguing the education sector for some time now, given the delayed educational reform and the deteriorating conditions [for] teachers.”
The government has "sought to demonize teachers, their general syndicate and the UGTT," the statement read, citing "impossible negotiating conditions." It also "used the crisis to cover up its failure to deal with many issues" and "incited public opinion against" the teachers.
Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has threatened to dock six days’ worth of pay from the teachers’ salaries for the time they didn't work. He said the government will deposit the money into the Educational Institutes Maintenance Fund to improve conditions for students.
The teachers union decided to continue withholding exam results after government spokesman Iyad Dahmani rejected the syndicate’s April 22 proposal. In the proposal, teachers said they were willing to engage in serious, responsible and unconditional negotiations with the Ministry of Education to salvage the school year. But Dahmani said the initiative would be impossible to implement because the Ministry of Finance can't afford teachers’ demands for increased spending totaling about $200 million a year. He warned that a missed school year has become a real threat and called on teachers to place the interests of students above all other considerations.
About 77,260 teachers work in public elementary and secondary schools in Tunisia, instructing some 950,000 students.
Ahmed al-Muhawk, the assistant general secretary of the teachers union, told Al-Monitor, “The escalatory steps taken by Education Minister Hatem Ben Salem and the government in relation to the … education crisis are an attempt to deal a blow to the education sector and thus push for a gap school year to prevent students from passing exams.”
But Shaker al-Ayadi, a leader of the secularist political party Nidaa Tunis, told Al-Monitor the teachers union is making "impossible demands," adding, “The country is on its way into an abyss and cannot tolerate more crises." He called on syndicate members to "return to their senses and take into account the interest of the country and the students.”
Meanwhile, Zuhair Hamdi, the leader of the leftist Popular Front coalition, blamed the Education Ministry for "exacerbating" the crisis "because it deliberately set impossible conditions to disrupt negotiations" with the teachers union. “I think that the crisis resulted from the government’s intention to abandon the public educational institutions in favor of the private sector,” he added.
On April 21, parents protested in the capital to decry the teachers’ decision to suspend classes and stop submitting exam results.
"The government should respond to the demands of the union, but in any case, [we don't] accept the threat to the future of our children," said Bashir al-Jawadi, the spokesman for the vigil.
The teachers union and the UGTT are both calling for a government reshuffle and for Ben Salem's dismissal, but the prime minister refuses to respond to such calls.
In an April 21 speech at a labor gathering in Gafsa, UGTT Secretary-General Noureddine al-Taboubi called on the Tunisian president in his capacity as the guarantor of security and peace to urgently intervene to resolve the crisis.
It may not be possible for the Education Ministry and the teachers union to reach an agreement, and the conflict could lead the UGTT to withdraw from the Carthage Declaration, which was signed in support of the government.