ENRAGED EDUCATORS: Public sector workers from throughout Latvia and Lithuania turned out in force to protest a series of pay cuts that had been proposed by the two governments. In Latvia, teachers ended their march accross the street from the Cabinet building.
VILNIUS/RIGA - Public sector workers in Latvia and Lithuania have staged simultaneous protests against government plans to cut financing and slash wages and promised further action if their demands are not met.
An estimated 10,000 education and science workers took to the streets in Riga on April 2 to demand better working conditions and protest against cuts in education spending.
The protest, which was larger than expected, caused road closures as demonstrators marched down Terbetes Street to the Cabinet of Ministers building on Brivibas Street.
Leading the march was Chairwoman of the Latvian Education and Science Workers Association (LIZDA) Astrida Harbacevica and her deputy, Janis Krastins.
Teachers from all over the country arrived for the event, which remained peaceful throughout. Protesters brandished signs reading "more financing for education and science" and "we want to live, not exist," among others.
The government cuts are a huge blow to teachers in Latvia, who remain among the lowest paid in the European Union.
"Our government is now shortening our salaries by either 20 or 40 percent, and some of our personnel will be fired," said Alexander Elsbergs, a teacher who took part in the march.
"In order to shorten expenses they are going to destroy schools," he said.
Teachers are the latest victims of Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis' hard-hitting government spending cuts.
Public sector employees, including teachers, are facing wage cuts of up to 20 percent as Latvia struggles to trim its budget to meet the requirements of a 7.5 billion euro bail out package brokered by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Latvia is the only country in Europe to cut financing and slash employee salaries in the education and science sector.
The move has attracted condemnation from trade union organizations across the EU, who have offered their solidarity to Latvian teachers.
LIZDA has also received support from its Estonian counterpart, which offered to picket the Latvian embassy in Tallinn over the proposed cuts in education spending.
It has emerged that under the government's harsh austerity measures up to 2,000 teachers could be laid off in 2010.
Finance Minster Einars Repse and Education Minister Tatjana Koke attempted to placate demonstrators in speeches delivered outside the government building, saying the government had no choice given Latvia's painful economic situation.
The comments were largely rejected by protesters, who shouted slogans and waved banners.
"Teachers did not make the financial crisis, so why should teachers have to be responsible for the crisis? Cutting education is a very short sighted policyâ€¦in the long run the cutting of education today means a very big cut in the future of education," LIZDA international secretary and adviser on higher education and research, Ilze Trapenciere told The Baltic Times (see story Page 14).
Education workers have threatened further action if their demands, including salary and social guarantees for teachers, the implementation of the current legal provisions, as well as accessibility of professional education and qualitative training, are not met.
Meanwhile, further south in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, police officers, firefighters and border guards staged a smaller protest against similar pay and spending cuts announced by the government.
About 150 officers led a procession to government buildings, with smaller demonstrations taking place in the regions.
To symbolize the extent to which they are being affected by pay cuts, several officers went barefoot and waved placards reading: "I Once Had a Pair of Shoes, Thank You for Taking Both of Them."
Government representatives did not emerge to meet protesters, prompting union leaders to threaten a nation-wide rally on April 25.
Protesters were further angered after it emerged that the government had reportedly lost a list of key demands from unions sent a month earlier.
Lithuania was among the few EU countries to drastically cut financing of its interior system.
"Last year the interior minister [Raimundas Palaitis] promised us that funding in 2009 will be 25 percent, but now we are only getting 17 percent. They said that everything would grow, like salaries and other things, but this year salaries have already been cut by 10 percent, and the ministry is going to cut it by [a further] 10 percent," President of the Customs Workers Union Jurius Bruklys told TBT.
"Funding is already low and if [it is] cut more then some officers may have to be fired. We wanted to talk with minister Palaitis, but he wasn't prepared for this conversation. He even lost the list with demands that we sent him a month before," he said.
Both Riga and Vilnius were the scenes of violent clashes between protesters and police in January, however, the latest demonstrations on April 2 passed without major incident.