Teachers’ strikes in Lithuania: it’s women, so why pay them?

Teachers’ strikes in Lithuania are quite common, especially compared to all other sectors: they happen once every other year and always present a serious headache for the ruling parties. Among 5-8 teachers’ unions of all colours and hues, including conservative Catholic Teachers’ Union and some “yellow” unions that almost always support the government’s decisions, the most radical is Lithuanian Education Employees Trade Union (LEETU or LŠDPS), which has started and led strikes most of the time, including the one at the end of 2018.

The strike of 2018, however, was special in both material conditions underlying it and its length, scope, and measures. The main reason of teachers’ dissatisfaction this time was a reform of their payments: before, teachers were paid according to the number of lessons and extracurricular activities they’d take up; after the reform, the system was changed into payment “according to work-load”, or “full-day” (“etatas” in Lithuanian). The reform was not funded well enough and in reality meant that many teachers’ pays went down (the promise and the official state statistics say that, overall, the pays increased), inequality of pays for same workload in different fields and schools increased, more power over employees was delegated to the local head-teachers, and general confusion and feelings of insecurity and instability among teachers ensued.

The strike started on November 11 and lasted more than a month, until December 21. According to LEETU, out of a little more than 1 000 schools in Lithuania, up to 150 went on strike at least for a day. On November 29, striking teachers came to the Ministry of Science and Education (MSE) to negotiate; acts of arrogance from the (now former) Minister’s side led some of them to stay in the MSE overnight, effectively adding occupation of the ministry to the arsenal: teachers continued to occupy one floor of the MSE to the every end of strike. The strike attracted broad social support, including rivalling parties of Conservatives and Socialdemocrats, other trade unions, left- and right-wing organisations, celebrities, etc. Several support protests in Vilnius were organised, attracting up to 4 thousand participants. At the end, after long negotiations, the teachers have won:

However, although 83 percent of teachers’ in Lithuania are women, the issue of gendered work was not raised by any trade union or political party. We present to you a translation of a short article “Teachers’ work: low paid, because feminised?” from a political portal “Gyvenimas per brangus” (“Life Is Too Expensive”), written during the peak of the strike and tackling exactly that issue.

Teachers’ work: low paid, because feminised?

After a month of teachers’ strike, broad social support to teachers’ demands, and occupation of the MSE, we are still hearing the same old tune: “The state has no funds to meet the teachers’ demands.” We hear this phrase every time when someone demands more money for the public sector. The state has no money not only for teachers, but also for doctors, university workers, or employees of other fields of social and care work. But is it true that the state has no money? Or is it that social security and care work are valued less than investment into fields seen as “adding to the economic growth”?

Our well-being depends on the economic growth, that’s what they always say. In the name of this growth, social security and workers’ rights are cut in hope that “business-friendly environment” will raise the wages and solve all our material problems. However, teachers strike almost yearly now, and there’s an increasing number of protests of other employees of the public sector, which proves that work that is not directly generating profits is simply not valued. And this is the kind of work that usually falls on women’s shoulders.

In the public sector, women mostly work in fields of education, social work and healthcare: as kindergarten or school teachers, librarians, nurses in hospitals and retirement homes. In the private sector, most women work in trade and service: as janitors, cashiers, hairdressers, cooks, waitresses. These professions are usually deemed “feminine”, because it’s where one needs “compassion, communication skills, care, and politeness”. However, these jobs are also deemed “less important” than, say, those of construction workers, engineers, or businessmen. Which is how lower pays in these fields are justified.

On the one hand, this stems from inequalities in labour division, when “feminine professions” are understood as natural continuation of femininity as such. Teachers are often required to work “out of idealism”, sacrifice themselves in the name of children’s education despite low pays. That way, teachers’ work is made analogous with the “natural” traits of femininity. Just like in the domestic sphere, where women should rear children, wash dishes, and cook food without asking for any pay, out of “natural calling”, here they should take care of other people’s children and educate them despite material conditions.

This situation brings forth the problem of child-rearing as an exceptionally “feminine” job. At home, mothers work without pay, in other words, “out of idealism”, or hire nannies (when there’s enough money for that). No one can deny that domestic labour and child-rearing are hard and require a lot of responsibility. Teachers’ work, just like domestic work, is valued less exactly for the same reason: because it’s “feminine”. At the same time, teachers are required to work as if they were in a factory, to produce labour-suitable citizens with speed and cost-effectiveness. Increasing number of pupils per class, control over lesson plans, closing of village schools, and school rating systems are all related to this. At the same time, with sexual education underfunded and conservative, the students go on to replicate harmful traditional gender roles. By portraying “working out of idealism” as a noble mission, we enable exploitation reeking of second-hand-clothes.

No “femininity” appears on its own. We are raised to be “feminine” when care, compassion, nurture are related exceptionally with women. From the very early days, we’re told to “rock the dolly, or she won’t fall asleep”. A lot of women choose to work in education and care work because they want to help other people and actively do what’s best for the public. The reasons are serious and respectable, but what is the price?

Easily accessible kindergartens, schools, and infrastructure of social security in general are closely related to women’s ability to leave the private domestic sphere. And vice versa, cuts to public services transfer more workload onto women’s shoulders and requires it done free of charge. These days, women are also “breadwinners” in the family, because their inclusion into the labour market is as broad as men’s: if only for the reason that one wage is not enough to support a family anymore. The mantra of overworked Soviet women’s “second shift” is true to this day, perhaps even more so, as women are required not only to do domestic labour after their day-work, but have to invest in their looks and representation, buy cosmetics and go on diets to be more presentable for the employers, and then suffer harrassment and devaluation. Therefore a “good” female teacher has to do her duties not only at school, but also at home, for as little money as possible. Perhaps it would be best if this labour didn’t cost at all …

When the state represents only “masculine” economic fields, business, and investment, males’ rule goes unchallenged. In the meantime, females are continuously assigned unpaid carework as well as rearing and education of our children. Education and social work in the state are equivalent to mom’s role in family. These fields are artificially constructed to be “callings”, and not labour that has to be paid for properly.

Proper wages for teachers would mean actual recognition of this labour. Teacher’s profession and public sector in general cannot be based on feminine labour “out of idealism”. This strike reveals the full social importance of teachers’ work and opens our eyes to the overall dire situation of the public sector. Teachers’ strike has to expand to other fields and become a strike for social change and different direction of state politics. Teachers’ strike is women’s strike. It’s a strike for gender equality not only in law but also in material reality.