TALLINN/RIGA - The row over teachers' salaries has threatened to spread across the region as union leaders in Estonia and Latvia threw their support behind striking teachers in Lithuania.
Officials of the Estonian Teachers Union, speaking exclusively to The Baltic Times, said they believed that conditions for Lithuanian teachers were appalling due to low pay and a work load they described as excessive.
"We support the strike in Lithuania. Teachers work for society and are responsible for raising the next generation and, therefore, are also responsible for what is going to happen in the future," said Lehte Joemaa of the Estonian Teachers Union.
Joemaa added that Estonian teachers intend on sending a message of support to striking teachers in Lithuania.
In Latvia, meanwhile, teachers and science workers sent a letter of support to their Lithuanian colleagues on March 4 's the second day of the strike. The teachers union recently said that, if things became much worse in the country, it would consider joining the picket.
Union representatives were quick to point out after sending the letter, however, that the situation in Latvia cannot be compared to the one in Lithuania. In Latvia, teachers have been promised a significant pay rise by 2010, while in Lithuania the situation is not so clear.
"We have a long time collaboration with the union and the people who are there [in Lithuania], we have written a letter to them that we support the strike," a union representative said.
Though the union is theoretically prepared to participate in the strike, it would not be able to in practice unless the strike escalated. A union representative said that as long as the strike stays in its current form, Latvian teachers would not join in.
Despite reaching agreement with the government over salaries, Estonian teachers are still not happy with their pay or work conditions and said that, following the Lithuanian example, they would be prepared to strike if they do not achieve a significant increase in the next round of pay talks, according to teachers' union officials.
"It's clear that the pay raise we received isn't consistent with the difficulty of a teacher's work, but we really hope we can reach a joint agreement that will substantially increase teachers' pay," Joemaa said.
Working conditions for Estonian teachers, according to union officials, are described as chaotic.
Officials claim some schools have too many pupils while others do not have enough. Also, teachers are burdened by excessive paper work which leaves them no time to actually teach. Additionally, teachers often provide their own teaching materials for students due to a lack of resources.
In Latvia, likewise, most teachers have to pay for their own school materials. One school teacher told TBT that not only did she have to buy her own books for the classes, she was even forced to buy her own laptop and other multimedia equipment for presentations.
Joemaa added that new information technologies, far from making life easier, have actually made matters worse.
"There's the Internet, which we hoped would make work easier, but it has led to e-schooling which actually takes more time," she said.
Teachers in Estonia are paid 9,516 kroons (608 euros), which is considerably lower than the average national wage, but still higher than their colleagues in Lithuania are paid. Lithuanian teachers earn about 1637 lita (470 euros) after taxes. They typically work up to 50 hours per week.
Lithuanian teachers began their strike on March 3 with a demand for a 50 percent pay raise. They have so far failed to reach agreement with Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas. The Lithuanian Government has announced that there simply is not enough money in government budgets to pay teachers the additional 2 billion litas they are demanding.
The teachers claim to be supported by the majority of the Lithuanian population and have charged that promises made to them about future salary increases have not been kept.
The Lithuanian strike was suspended on March 21, with union representatives saying they would go back to work until the government finished negotiations over wage increases. If the government failed to satifactorily raise wages, however, the union warned that it would resume the strike indefinitely.