Why are some teachers on strike in Hungary while others say there is no alternative but civil disobedience?

The national teachers' strikes, which started in March this year, have gained new momentum since the start of the school year. But why is strike the most crucial demand for teachers if some are still striking now? And how is civil disobedience different? We've rounded up the most important things to know about strikes, why different rules apply to teachers, and why unions say the government has made it impossible to strike in education.

What is a strike for?

The right to strike is a fundamental right. The Fundamental Law also confirms this: 'workers [...] have the right to take collective action [...] in defence of their interests, which includes the right to strike.' Strikes can be used to promote economic or social interests. Typical examples are higher wages, better working conditions, or even the possibility for workers to have a say in workplace decisions - which is why, for example, the University of Theatre and Film Arts employees went on strike in 2020. The primary function of a strike is to exert pressure. It is a legal way for workers to harm the interests of the employer in order to assert their own interests. If there is no pressure, i.e. the employer is not harmed by the strike, then the strike is meaningless. However, this does not mean that workers can do anything. While it may seem strange at first that the law is trying to regulate a way of exerting pressure, there are legal requirements that must be followed for a proper strike.

How to strike legally in Hungary?

First of all, you cannot just go on strike legally. Once the workers' demands have been formulated, and the flame of assertion has been kindled, it must first be cooled down. This period is indeed called a 'cooling-off period'. During this period, strike demands must be negotiated peacefully, i.e. through negotiations, for at least seven days. During these seven days, there can only be one short warning strike, lasting a maximum of two hours.

If the employer and the workers cannot agree on the demands during negotiations, the strike, i.e. the walkout itself, can take place. The worker then shows up at work, but deliberately does not do the work in order to exert pressure. In the context of the teachers' strike, it has often been said that this is an "omission", but it is not! Striking is a lawful act, i.e. there is no negligence on the part of anyone who strikes legally. Therefore, there should be no disadvantage other than a pay cut for the time you have been on strike (i.e. for the exact number of hours you have not worked), because you have not done any work.

For employers who provide essential, basic services to the public - such as health, utilities, public transport and, according to the Hungarian courts, public education - an additional condition must be met for a strike to be lawful. It is not possible to stop work altogether because a certain level of service must be provided during a strike. This is called a sufficient service. It is usually the case that the level of service that can be deemed sufficient is not precisely defined, i.e. it is itself subject to negotiation. Employers and workers are therefore in a dispute, even before the actual strike, about how many people should be working in which institutions during the strike. If they cannot reach an agreement, a court will decide the issue on the basis of the offers made by the parties.

What about education? Why are teachers demanding that they be given back the right to strike?

In some sectors, even sufficient service is defined by law. In such cases, the state circumvents the parties’ negotiation and legislates itself the level of service to be provided. Until March 2022, when the teachers’ dissatisfaction among teachers became sensitive to the state, the sufficient level of service was not defined. Until then, strikes in the public education sector, whether planned or ongoing, were subject to consultation on the level of service still sufficient and were eventually decided by a court. This statutory service is anything but a minimum.

  • Childcare must be provided for longer than the generally prescribed time.

  • Even though there are no classes, groups of pupils must be segregated in classrooms as strictly as they were during the Coronavirus epidemic, which of course requires additional supervising teachers.

  • For pupils with special educational needs or difficulties of integration, learning and behaviour, no class should be missed/skipped/cancelled. Teachers dealing with students with special needs and their development are therefore not even allowed to go on strike at the expense of school sessions.

  • All classes for those who are in the year of general certificate exams must also be held.

It is easy to see that if only a few lessons are missed and if the child goes to school as before, the strike will not fulfil its previously described function of exerting pressure. That is why teachers are outraged. And that is why another form of protest is emerging: civil disobedience.

If there is no point in striking in education, why do some teachers go on strike?

Despite the restrictions that can be challenged, many still choose to strike. There may be individual and tactical reasons for this. From an individual point of view, strikes are a form of protest that follows the rules and strikers are clearly protected by law. They should not suffer any disadvantage other than loss of pay. The trade unions, on the other hand, believe that it may be a tactical move for the school as a whole to declare both a strike and civil disobedience in the institution. In the event of a strike, parents must be informed. If the parents are supportive and do not send their children to school, then the teachers who choose civil disobedience cannot be held accountable for not teaching and thus violating the right to education of the students.

It is also important for trade unions not to call on their members to consciously break the rules, but to use the strike rules in creative ways and to make the protest visible within this framework. This is why a "rolling strike" has been called from 19 September, which means that teachers strike not for a long period of time, but in a scheduled way according to a fixed "timetable". An important aspect of the rolling strike is that teaching does not start at 8 o'clock, as usual (so that many people can see that there is a strike), so there is no need to strike for long periods on a single day. In order to avoid missing the same lessons, there is an 'A' week and a 'B' week, both with strikes on different days.

What is civil disobedience?

Civil disobedience is a conscious, openly undertaken, morally motivated and non-violent breach of rules. Its aim is to raise awareness of the problem in order to bring about change. Importantly, civil disobedience can be used when all other means to solve the problem have been exhausted. Civil disobedience can be a means of protesting against unjust and unfair regulation - as is the case of teachers.

Teachers' civil disobedience consists of not taking up the job, despite the strict requirement of sufficient service. Legally, this is justified because, as we have seen, their negotiations with the Minister for Education have not led to any results, and their right to strike is completely nullified by the law. In other words, they have no other means of drawing attention to their worsening situation and the need to bring about change.

The moral motivation for their action is justified by the social importance of the cause they are fighting for: the state of education. Without quality education, the right of students to learn, which is the basis of any country's future, will not be fulfilled. Education, through professionals and teachers - provides knowledge that parents may not be able to grant. It is hard to imagine a stronger moral foundation than a commitment to the future of students and thus of society as a whole.

It is also important that the teachers opting for civil disobedience always bear the consequences of their actions. Those who refuse to work should therefore expect consequences under labour law, such as loss of pay or other sanctions, depending on their contract. However, we do not believe that firing someone is a legal sanction. A few hours of disobedience is not commensurate with losing one's job for good. One should also bear in mind that everyone has the right to protest. The lawfulness of dismissal cannot, therefore, be judged solely on the basis of labour law, but the right to freedom of expression, which is a higher, so-called fundamental right, must also be taken into account.

Civil disobedience is a courageous and honourable stand for education when the situation is untenable, and there are no other means for those concerned to express their dissatisfaction.