Burned out but still fighting for Ukraine's future

21st March 2014 at 00:00
Union carries on its work in country facing unknown perils

Although teaching unions around the world have found themselves in an increasingly hostile political environment in recent years, the predicament currently facing the Trade Union of Education and Science Workers of Ukraine (STESU) is unprecedented. The union is currently operating out of a Kiev hotel bedroom after its headquarters - adjacent to Maidan Square, the epicentre of recent upheaval in the capital - was burned down.

As thousands of Ukrainians descended on the square during the recent protests, many took refuge in the building shared by STESU and other trade unions. And when the country's leader Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by Ukraine's new coalition government, police forces loyal to the pro-Russian former president torched the premises; 100 lives were lost.

"The building has been totally gutted," said Patrick Roach, deputy general secretary of the UK's NASUWT teaching union. Dr Roach visited the country last week with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Fred van Leeuwen, general secretary of global union federation Education International (EI), along with union officials from Poland and Bulgaria. The international movement is raising funds to help STESU get back on its feet.

"There was a very tense atmosphere in Kiev. The mood of concern and anxiety was well-founded, with people not knowing what the future holds," Dr Roach said. "[STESU] have no building in which to operate. They have no base in which to provide a service to their members across the country."

Of the union's two million members - which includes teachers as well as science sector employees and students - the 80,000 educators based in Crimea were the biggest concern after Russia moved this week to absorb the disputed peninsula. Over the weekend, 97 per cent of people who took part in a referendum voted for Crimea to become part of Russia. President Vladimir Putin claimed that the territory had "always been part of Russia" and that he had corrected a "historical injustice".

This view is not shared by the wider international community, however, which is refusing to recognise the results of the vote. The US warned that the referendum "violates the Ukrainian constitution and occurred under duress of Russian military intervention", and has threatened sanctions against Russia in retaliation.

"It's difficult for the union to organise and support its teachers when the area they're in is being forcibly annexed from the rest of the country," Dr Roach said.

The Ukrainian education ministry has responded by setting up a hotline offering advice for Crimean teachers and students. "We get a lot of calls from young people who are very worried about their future," Ukraine's acting deputy education minister, Inna Sovsun, told the EI delegation. "We have asked our universities to open their doors for students from the Crimea who want to leave the peninsula to avoid waking up in another country."

But with a 20 per cent cut in the education budget across Ukraine expected next year, the pressure on schools is mounting. The delegation was told that thousands of teachers across the country were currently receiving as little as a quarter of their usual pay, with cash-strapped administrators unable to cover salary costs owing to the ongoing economic turbulence caused by the political upheaval.

"Teachers are being woefully underpaid," Dr Roach said. "Ministers want to see education protected but it's hard to see how that's going to happen."

In spite of the difficulties facing Ukraine's classroom unions, Mr van Leeuwen stressed the crucial role of educators in rebuilding Ukraine's government.

"We must help the teacher trade union movement in the country to get back on its feet as soon as possible, so that it can continue playing a role in strengthening the democratic movement," he said.

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