BUCHAREST -- More than 100,000 striking teachers. The education sector's three biggest unions. And starting net pay of around 2,400 lei ($520) per month, slightly over half the national average.
Romania's teachers, from kindergarten to 12th grade, have done the math.
So, despite years of complaints and months of street protests, bitter wrangling, and a two-hour walkout last week, some 100,000-150,000 teachers and tens of thousands of support staffers at elementary and high schools across the country launched their first major strike in 18 years on May 22.
The indefinite strike immediately affected millions of students and parents, threatened to disrupt final exams at thousands of high schools, and put a planned swap of prime ministers within Romania's grand coalition on hold.
Teachers blame years of neglect and stonewalling by the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca, his imminent replacement Marcel Ciolacu, and their ally in the presidency, former physics teacher Klaus Iohannis.
The strike by teachers and support staffers will continue, they say, until they are offered "a credible solution" to long-standing demands for higher pay and other fixes to one of the EU's most poorly funded education systems.
"Mr. Ciuca is silent; President Iohannis is silent; Mr. Ciolacu promises," Simion Hancescu, leader of the Federation of Free Education Unions (FSLI), told RFE/RL's Romanian Service after failed crisis talks last week. "It can't be like that any longer. The die has been cast."
In all, the FSLI and its fellow strike organizers represent some 350,000 teachers and other school-system employees. The walkout could also have a knock-on effect on tens of thousands of professionals poised to protest or strike in other vital budgetary sectors, from health-care workers and public administrators to prison guards.
The ruling tripartite National Coalition for Romania and conservative Prime Minister Ciuca's cabinet have struggled to restore public confidence, combat spiking inflation, and fend off recession since taking over after a center-right coalition government collapsed in October 2021.
Hancescu complains that since teachers began holding protests in December 2022, and continued each month thereafter, the government has been "impassive" in high-level talks over demands for better pay, starting with new teachers. The result, he said, had been "only unfulfilled promises."
Starting teachers at publicly funded elementary and high schools in Romania net around 2,400 lei a month; teachers with 40 years' experience can make up to around 4,200 lei. Romania's net minimum wage is 1,900 lei and the average monthly take-home pay is around 4,550 lei, according to the National Institute of Statistics.
The unions are demanding 4,500 lei for new teachers and up to 7,000 lei for their most experienced colleagues. They want more gradual raises for all teachers, based on qualifications and seniority, indexation for inflation, overtime pay, and more annual spending on infrastructure.
On the day of last week's brief walkout, Ciuca met with teachers' representatives at Victoria Palace, a government building in downtown Bucharest that houses the prime minister and the cabinet, and emerged saying the government's new program "will include our firm commitments to prioritize the application of pay commensurate with the importance given to education."
However, the two sides did not appear to be close to a breakthrough.
Anton Hadar of the Alma Mater National Trade Union Federation, another strike organizer, said the government side declined to offer adjustments to the salary scales that guide budget-sector pay.
Romania's spending of 3.7 percent of GDP on education ranked it 130th in the world and 34th among 41 European states based on 2020 spending figures.
But spending levels aside, experts give Romania's recent governments low marks. The Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) Rights Tracker, a global performance indicator, said last year that Romania was "doing 65.1 percent of what should be possible at its level of income" to ensure people's right to education -- ranking it worst in Europe.
Gabriela Aranghel, a union leader at one of the many schools where classes were canceled on May 22 in Craiova, a city of around 300,000 in southern Romania, was wearing a badge that said "striker" in Romanian. The same message was taped to the door of the teachers' chancellery where Aranghel was gathered with protesting teachers. Some corrected papers, others filled out paperwork, and some simply chatted.
None of the roughly 1,400 high-school-age students were anywhere to be found in any of its tidy, now-silent hallways or classrooms.
Unanimous backing for the strike and a long run-up, Aranghel says, had allowed for extensive communication that helped ease the blow for families. "The children's parents were with us," she insisted. "Each of us made sure that the messages we sent were clear…[so they understood] that this is no longer possible. We need to be helped, the teachers to be paid what they deserve, [and] the school to go back to normal."
Although this week's strike targeted elementary schools and high schools, publicly funded higher institutions might not be far behind. University teachers staged a two-hour warning strike on May 22 to signal their discontent.
Cristian Preda, dean of the Faculty of Political Sciences at the University of Bucharest, has been a dues-paying member of one of his university's three unions since 1991. He has never been called to a union meeting but said he was joining the strike because "no one has humiliated us like [Education Minister Ligia] Deca and Iohannis."
He talked of a "surgical operation" that includes repealing laws and removing "all the impediments that block the system," including by granting more autonomy for research.
Simona Lidia Sava, a teacher at the West University of Timisoara (UVT), told RFE/RL that "the social status of teachers has eroded, [and] it's no longer an attractive profession."
"Those in the system took a stand because the low salary forces them to have two or three jobs," she said. "They come to the children tired, and they have neither professional nor material satisfaction. And it's not just about the salary."
But not all of the country's professors are ready to take drastic action.
Madalin Buniou, vice chancellor at UVT, says the teachers' union distributed forms for professors there to join the strike but that there's never been a sufficient groundswell to prompt a strike there. "At the teacher level, the salaries are decent," she said.
The prospects for a swift and enduring solution look slim.
Romania's last major school strike was in 2005. Then, teachers and other employees crippled the public-school system through almost two months of protests, picketing, and a 20-day strike.
Parliament speaker Ciolacu was expected to take over as prime minister by June under the grand-coalition deal struck 18 months ago. That plan has already been put on hold because of the strike. Ciolacu, who heads the Social Democratic Party (PSD), co-chairs the ruling coalition and was already involved in the negotiations with the education-sector unions.
The strike is also a blow to President Iohannis, a former physics teacher whose wife still teaches English, and his flagship Educated Romania project.
Iohannis launched Educated Romania in 2016, midway through his first five-year term. His official website describes it as "the largest and longest-running public consultation on public policy in education to date," and it boasts of multiple "phases" and "working groups." Running tallies on the project's website spin out totals like 12,470 "people consulted," 64 "structures involved," and 80 "events organized by third parties."
On the first day of the strike, the Senate, the upper house of parliament, approved two laws on education that emerged from the Educated Romania project.
But the new laws avoid the salary issue, and teachers and their representatives want more. "There is the issue of credibility," Marian Nistor, leader of the Spiru Haret Federation of Trade Unions in Education, one of the strike's organizers, said last week. "Most colleagues want to see concrete solutions in the government program. Our mandate is for something concrete."
Sensing the urgency while in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik for a Council of Europe summit, Iohannis on May 17 called teachers' requests for better pay "justified." "If we want to have a very good-quality education in Romania, then we must have all the conditions -- not only modern schools, well-equipped classrooms, well-equipped offices -- we must also take care of those who shape the younger generation: that is, we must ensure that teachers have the conditions to do their job properly, a very important one of which is obviously the salary," Iohannis said. "So, teachers must be paid at their true worth."
But he prefaced those remarks by saying that "we have to see how things turn out."
Iohannis appeared to acknowledge the government's failure to act faster on an issue of crucial importance but warned that salary issues are "artificially mixed up" with legislative debates, despite being governed by guidelines within the Labor Ministry's national salary grid. He vowed to "insist...that the Labor Ministry work a little faster on the new salary bill."
FSLI President Hancescu has questioned such maneuvering and says the removal from the laws on education of a provision linking starting teachers' salaries to the average national salary raises suspicions about government intentions.
Indeed, one day before last week's two-hour walkout, Education Minister Deca said the Finance Ministry needed to weigh in before specific salary increases could be enacted.
Presidential and parliamentary elections are expected later this year, although no date has been set.
Sociologist Andrei Taranu, vice dean of the Faculty of Political Science at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies (SNSPA) in Bucharest, says teachers have been buffeted by opportunistic criticism, including in politically fraught debates over new legislation.
He says teachers are frequently treated with contempt by the government and unions alike, including calls for them to accept responsibility for problems beyond their control.
"It's always fascinating how, in a crisis, it's always the teachers and doctors who are 'irresponsible,' never the politicians," Taranu told RFE/RL's Romanian Service, adding that such a strike was long overdue. "This strike was necessary in February; now it's a palliative."
He predicts that the ruling parties will find a way to shorten the teachers' strike because they can't afford a massive stoppage that affects children, parents, and much of the rest of society. "They'll try to find temporary solutions, to increase wages, increases that will melt into inflation," Taranu said.
But education is not the only sector where professionals are increasingly restless.
Members of the Columna union, which represents some 20,000 public administrators and social workers, voted to launch their own labor actions --including a possible strike -- beginning sometime after June 1.
Meanwhile, the Sanitas Federation says it has started collecting signatures to stage a strike among health and social-assistance workers, and a demonstration is reportedly planned for June 8.
The head of a union representing prison guards says they see the effects of inferior education and underpaid teachers. The Federation of Trade Unions in the National Administration of Penitentiaries (FSANP)'s Cosmin Dorobantu told RFE/RL's Romanian Service that while its members had no right to strike, they would be joining the teachers' public demonstrations once the strike is over. He said hundreds of prison guards would show up "in the spirit of solidarity" and also to push for higher pay and better working conditions.
"We see this disinterest of the political class toward our demands, and they have been [this way] for years, not just now," Dorobantu said.
Taranu says unions are only now figuring out how to "put their heads up" following a new labor law in 2011 that limited opportunities to unionize.
Talk of new legislation on budget-sector employees emerged in February, after unions representing employees in the education and health-care sectors staged street protests.
Among the four sectors dominated by budgetary spending, Taranu says, the education sector representatives' timing to "put pressure on the Ciolacu government" was "well chosen."
He says the potential freezing of national exams, including national assessments and baccalaureates, provides maximum leverage and is the "only form of blackmail that teachers have."
"Otherwise, there have been a lot of protests and, unfortunately, they weren't taken into account precisely because teachers -- unlike doctors, railway workers, or even police officers -- don't really have anything to threaten society with -- only the exams."