Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Teachers' Painful Protest

The teachers' strikes should send a signal to the government that the patience of a wide segment of educated society is limited.

The news media have drawn particular attention to the waves of discontent among striking miners who last month closed down railroads and brought passenger and freight travel to a stop.

Against the background of these extraordinary events, which threatened to disrupt the normal functioning of the economy, the demonstrations of students in Yekaterinburg, teachers in institutions of higher education, scholars and students in Moscow, as well as the recurring strikes of school teachers, have attracted far less attention. The stories have tended to be relegated to the inside pages of newspapers, and educators and students have been kept on the periphery of current political struggles.

Along with the miners, however, teachers are the most active and numerous participants in strike movements in the country. While the need for restructuring the coal industry, which entails closing down unprofitable mines and creating new jobs for unemployed miners, has been widely acknowledged, similar "pro-market" reforms in education are met with growing opposition, particularly from teachers and their organizations. After a high-level official carelessly suggested that changes in education would involve the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in education, teachers and unions began to fight against this threat, no matter how firmly the government denied it.

The need to introduce reforms is often based on faulty comparisons of higher-education institutions in Russia and the West. But to make cuts in staff on the basis of the number of educators per student in the United States or Britain is misguided, given that the level of technical equipment and the teaching process in those countries differ sharply from Russia's. As for teachers' material standing today, their wages during the past four decades have been almost cut in half.

Back in 1991, President Boris Yeltsin issued Decree No. 1, which stipulated that education workers should receive similar wages to industrial workers. In reality, during the years of reform, the opposite took place. Since 1996, teachers and professors more and more often have not received their salaries on time. While teachers have lost 7 percent to 9 percent of their yearly salaries because of these nonpayments, the previous years of inflation have eaten up a much larger part of their income. But the psychological effect of not being paid wages on time is far more difficult and troubling. Moreover, unlike industry, construction or trade, the majority of whose enterprises are already privately owned, 98 percent of the wage arrears to teachers is owed by the federal or local governments. Given these conditions, teachers and professors are not expressing their dissatisfaction against a separate enterprise or the management of some stock company, but against local authorities and the federal government, which are violating laws, regulations and decrees that they themselves have issued.

It is difficult for me to write this small article. The fact is, I am an economist by profession and have taught for 38 years at Moscow State University, and, in the distant past, like millions of fellow citizens, I was a student. As a research scholar, I understand that, in conditions in which production in Russia over the past seven years has decreased by 40 percent and state expenditures have fallen even lower, the government's resources are objectively limited. Besides teachers and doctors, miners, farmers, scientists and officers are demanding an increase in state expenditures. They all with more or less justification make claims for a piece of the decreasing "budget pie."

In the fight for government allocations, it is usually the strongest who win, or those whom the government fears most. Teachers, doctors and scientists these past few years have clearly not been counted among such people. This is probably why the miners have achieved much more than teachers, even though they have demonstrated in equal numbers.

During Soviet times, official propaganda asserted the high role that school teachers played in society. In reality, school teaching enjoyed little prestige. The jobs were mostly filled by women, and the position of teachers grew relatively worse. It is a tragedy that in democratic Russia -- or, to be more precise, a country striving to be democratic -- this picture is being repeated. Once a part of what might be loosely defined as the Soviet middle class, the majority of teachers have now been cast down to the lower ranks of the social ladder.

Here the comparison of miners and teachers is apt. If almost all the miners are men, then the overwhelming majority of teachers are women. The miners work with coal and the teachers with children. Psychologically, it is very difficult for them to strike and deprive the children of needed knowledge. I will never forget the words of the wife of a close friend, a teacher in an ordinary Moscow school, who while acknowledging the justice of her colleagues' demands, still refused to go on strike. She repeated again and again: "After all, the children aren't guilty of anything." And if, despite this, 400,000 to 500,000 teachers in Russia decide to strike like the miners, then this is a threatening signal to the government. It shows that the patience of a wide segment of educated society is in no way unlimited.

Although I understand in my mind that miracles do not occur in the economy, I still hope that the government will manage to find the additional means and provide for the preservation of one of Russia's most valuable resources -- a decent level of education for its young generation.

Leonid Fridman is a professor of economics at Moscow State University. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.