The occupation of Lithuania’s Ministry of Education headquarters in Vilnius is entering its second week and has been marked by a number of protests over the last few days. Striking teachers are vowing that they will not leave the premises until their demands have been met — marking a shift in tactics from a region with traditionally passive and weakened trade unions.
Update: The education minister has now been fired.
The teachers’ grievances focus around an increase in workload as classroom sizes in the inner cities are increasing. Their demands are to be properly compensated for this increase as well as a firm commitment from the Ministry to employ more staff and reduce the number of pupils in classrooms.
Lithuania’s Teachers’ trade union has historically been among the strongest in the country, so there wasn’t much of a surprise when three weeks ago half of the staff from 40 state schools decided to go on strike over the change in their workload.
The industrial action unexpectedly entered a new stage on Wednesday however when a demonstration outside Parliament was turned into an impromptu occupation of the Ministry of Education in Vilnius’ Old Town. About 30 teachers are sleeping in the building, with many supporters bringing them food and other essentials. Pictures of this escalation  have been shared thousands of times — significant figures in a country with a population of three million.
Thursday saw 250 teachers, students and other trade unionists march through Central Vilnius and ask (edit: former) Education Minister Jurgita Petrauskienė to reconsider the reforms. Friday’s solidarity demonstration brought 400 teachers, students and their parents. Later that evening, when the Ministry’s security staff declined the supporters entry to the building, the teachers opened the windows from the inside and allowed a mass of wellwishers and members of the media to see the occupation for themselves.
Yesterday the daily solidarity demonstration outside the Ministry was attended by 200 people in -10C temperatures. Members of trade unions from the academic and science communities, actors and medics have all shown support in the demonstration, with candles being lit in other towns to light up the hope for an educational reform. In the evening Lithuania’s biggest pop stars Jurgis Didžiulis and Erica Jennings staged a concert in the occupied premises bringing this cause to a proper mainstream audience.
All this momentum should worry the centre-right government, which has been in denial over growing support for the strike. Petrauskienė has thus far refused to meet trade union delegates for negotiations, but with all mainstream outlets now covering the protests live and even celebrities showing support, next week will be crucial in seeing how this movement can escalate further. The teachers are publicly stating that they are happy to continue the occupation at least until Christmas. Although here in the UK we are used to violent evictions of such occupations, Lithuania’s general public would likely be appalled by such scenes, especially if targeting such a respectable profession as teaching, and it would only increase the growing dissatisfaction with the government.
Many progressive causes are tagging themselves to the strike and occupation, as it marks a new step towards a more militant organising coming from the usually tame eastern European industrial unions. A general belief that the European Union and open market capitalism will save all of the country’s problems is fast diminishing and there is a growing dissatisfaction with the fact that the improving situation in the economy is not being felt by the lowest paid, public sector workers. This translates itself in the revival of trade union organising and a growing solidarity between the precarious classes. Exciting times!
A new, militant trade union based on the IWW tradition called May Day was established in Kaunas this year and has requested messages of support from the international education and academic community to the striking teachers in Lithuania – please consider sending in yours to [email protected]!
Pics: Kiril Cachovskij