Tag Archives: teachers’ demonstration

Orbán and his ministers got their report cards: they all failed

In the last couple of months we didn’t hear much about the teachers’ rebellion against Viktor Orbán’s educational reforms, except that the dissatisfied teachers promised to do something after the matriculation exams ended but before the last day of the school year. Eventually, we learned that the leaders of the “Tanítanék” (I would like to teach) movement were organizing a rally at which they were planning to present the government with their own report cards.

I must admit that I was not at all optimistic that they could pull off another huge demonstration, the kind they staged on March 15. Past experience has taught us how easily enthusiasm wanes. After realizing that street demonstrations rarely have any tangible results, participants soon enough lose their appetite for these gatherings. So, I was very afraid that instead of a mass demonstration only a few hundred people would show up today on March 15 tér and that, with such a poor showing, the whole teachers’ revolt would fizzle out.

Source: Blikk / Photo: Ferenc Isza

Source: Blikk / Photo: Ferenc Isza

I was wrong. To sustain people’s interest protests don’t have to have positive results. On the contrary, a negative outcome might spur even more intensified resistance. If the government had granted some reasonable concessions, the teachers might have been appeased. But Viktor Orbán misjudged the situation and decided not just to ignore the teachers’ demands but to make the state’s stranglehold over the schools and thus over the teachers even tighter. For one thing, instead of a single KLIK, there will now be another layer of bureaucracy–57 little KLIKs.

In the last three years, since the introduction of the centralized system, at least the school buildings and their maintenance remained in the hands of the local communities. The Orbán government, however, in its eternal wisdom, came to the conclusion that they should also centralize the physical maintenance of the school buildings. So, for example, if a window gets broken, the school administration will have to apply to one of the little KLIKs, most likely miles away, for a replacement window.

Source: Blikk / Photo: Ferenc Isza

Source: Blikk / Photo: Ferenc Isza

The reaction in the community was fury. According to the union leaders, the number of people who are ready to actively participate in an anti-establishment movement has grown many times over since the government’s refusal to listen to the initial demands of the teachers. They feel cheated and have come to the conclusion that negotiating with Viktor Orbán’s minions is absolutely useless because the government representatives cannot be trusted. The trade union leaders also realized that the so-called “negotiators” on the government side don’t have a mandate to make decisions or to offer negotiating points. So, Piroska Galló, head of the Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ), announced that traditional methods of dealing with an employer, in this case the state, are useless in Orbán’s Hungary. From here on, more radical methods must be employed.

Apparently, the government decision makers were misled by the small number of teachers, only about 20%, who participated in the strike staged by the trade unions in April. Trade union leader Galló maintains that, although relatively few people took part in the strike, the trade unions’ demands were supported by a large majority of the teachers. Also, the government negotiators paid no attention to the protest of the parents who kept their children at home on the day of the strike. Their numbers were in the hundreds of thousands. They are ready to support their children’s teachers and are just as angered by the government’s reaction as are the teachers.

Mrs. Galló was right. Despite rain mixed with hail, thousands showed up in an impressive display of resolve. The government went very wrong here and still hasn’t learned its lesson. The education department, housed in the ministry of human resources, continues to think that the trade union leaders and the civic organizations of teachers will fall for the old line that “the majority of teachers believe in dialogue and not in street action and political provocation.” No, they don’t. If the teachers learned anything in the last few months, it was that negotiation with the Orbán government–alleged dialogue–is a dead end. I also believe that the charge, repeated time and again, that the “teachers are being used by anti-government forces” will only add fuel to the fire. The result is that both the trade unions and the civic “Tanítanék” group are determined to continue the fight, and with even greater force come fall.

The two leaders of the Tanítanék group are born leaders. I’m amazed at their organizational and oratorical skills. If anyone can organize a real mass movement around the teachers it will be István Pukli and Kata Törley. They promise something spectacular once schools open in September. They are already working to establish a nationwide network of activists. They began their recruitment right on the spot

One of the highlights of the demonstration was the handing out of report cards to government officials.  Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources; László Palkovics, his undersecretary responsible for education; János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office; Lajos Kósa, head of Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation; Antal Rogán, “propaganda minister”; Szilárd Németh, one of the deputy chairmen of Fidesz; and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán all received failing grades. As the grades were read out, the crowd jeered and shouted “mocskos Fidesz” (filthy Fidesz). Of course, the greatest booing came after Viktor Orbán’s report card was read.

We should keep in mind that the popularity of Fidesz today is not what it was a few months ago. According to the Republikon Intézet, Fidesz’s popularity has fallen 8% in just one month, between April and May, among committed voters. The beneficiaries of Fidesz’s losses seem to be the smaller parties, especially the Demokratikus Koalíció (+3%) and to a lesser extent LMP (+1%) and Együtt (+1%). These results were more or less seconded by Fidesz’s own Századvég. Some spectacular show of force by the teachers might further erode Fidesz’s popularity.

For those who didn’t see István Pukli and Kata Törley on ATV, they also appeared on Egyenes beszéd ráadás (Straight Talk Extra) yesterday.

June 11, 2016

The great awakening: Hungary’s twenty-first century 1848

I consider this March 15th to be a true watershed in the history of the new democratic Hungary. Many of those who vividly remember 1989 and the dawn of a new political era believe that the promise of a second beginning has arrived. The end of the Viktor Orbán era is approaching. Those teachers and their supporters who spoke to about 50,000 people gathered in front of the parliament building in cold, rainy weather seem ready to follow through and, if necessary, go so far as eventually to declare a general strike.

As I have steadfastly maintained ever since the news of the teachers’ revolt against the Orbán government’s retrograde school system hit the media, this movement is defined by much more than the dissatisfaction of a handful of teachers. It is sowing the seeds of a general revolt against the system Viktor Orbán has methodically created in the last six years.

The beginnings are promising. At their first demonstration the teachers’ unions managed to get about 20,000 people to stand in the pouring rain, listening to inspiring speeches and ending their demonstration with five minutes of silence when one could hear only the rain drops falling on their umbrellas. It was uplifting. Even my most pessimistic friends had to admit that something very unusual was happening. The general apathy had been broken. The people had at last said, no more.

Of course, there were other earlier demonstrations that ended with a whimper. A few speeches, some very good, some not so good, after which the organizers asked the people to sing the national anthem and told the folks to go home. The crowd wanted more than that, and fewer and fewer of them went to these demonstrations. What’s the use? was the eventual reaction.

March 15

These organizers are different. István Pukli, Kata Törley, and Olivér Pilz are determined to see their protest movement play out to its logical conclusion. After the first demonstration they began organizing a new one which, they promised, would be even bigger than the first. It was this second demonstration that took place today and that impressed so many people. It was here that they announced their two demands of the government.

First, an apology from Viktor Orbán and János Áder by midnight on March 23 to “all those people they have humiliated in the last six years.” If there is no such apology, teachers nationwide will strike during one class and will ask parents and sympathizers to gather in front of the schools their children or grandchildren attend. If another week goes by without an apology, there will be a two-hour strike. The following week a three-hour one. All this, by the way, is illegal according to the new labor law enacted by the robot parliament of Viktor Orbán. This civil disobedience would spread until a general strike could be declared. According to Pukli, they have assurances from 950 organizations that they would join such a strike.

This demand for an apology will not be met. The organizers must know full well that Viktor Orbán will never publicly ask for forgiveness from the Hungarian people for his misdeeds.

The second demand is for the dismemberment of the round table headed by Undersecretary László Palkovics and his minister, Zoltán Balog. Future negotiations should be conducted by a member of the government who “has true competence to make decisions and who has control of the purse strings.” In the Orbán government there is only one person who can make decisions, Viktor Orbán himself, so this demand will not be met either. In addition, the negotiators on the teachers’ side demand that the official negotiations be conducted publicly, with the media present, which is a very wise move, knowing the government’s penchant for distorting the truth.

Since it is highly unlikely that either demand will be met, we can expect weekly strikes. As Pukli said after the demonstration, “it is only force that this government understands.”

And finally a few personal impressions. The speeches were only in small part about the teachers’ demands, although Olivér Pilz read their twelve points and asked the crowd to indicate whether they are ready to support them. That was their national consultation. The speeches were mostly about the freedom that was taken away from the Hungarian people and that must be taken back from this government. There was a great deal of emphasis on bravery, of not being afraid. They made the crowd repeat time and again: “they have no power over us.” Over and over one could hear that “we mustn’t accept” what the government forces on us. This was a massive demonstration against the regime of Viktor Orbán. It has taken a long time for the people to wake up, but I believe that we have finally arrived at a level of dissatisfaction that might soon enough become a tipping point.

Today’s national holiday was the perfect setting to launch an anti-government movement. March 15 is all about freedom, representative government, a parliamentary system. Everything that the Orbán system is not. So, not surprisingly, at this demonstration 1848 was the focal point. Mária Sándor, the nurse in black, performed brilliantly. She recited the first lines of Sándor Petőfi’s famous poem, “Rise Hungarians / Now or never,” and the crowd responded: “Now.” She also recited the lyrics of the Hungarian national anthem asking God to “extend His guarding arm above her,” and at the end she even sang  the very popular by now protest song; “If I were a rose” by János Bródy. This woman, just a nurse who takes care of sick babies, has guts. To stand there and sing alone in front of this enormous crowd. It was amazing and very moving.

Yes, these people are different from what came before them. I wish them the best.

March 15, 2016

After the demonstration: Fidesz is in a quandary

László Mendrey, leader of the Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete (PDSZ), in his speech delivered this morning in pouring rain at the mass demonstration organized by the trade unions, said that the government, which he labelled “the Power,” overestimated its strength and greatly underestimated the determination of the teachers. This is most likely the case, judging from the public statements of Fidesz officials, including those of the prime minister.

One can always be sure that János Lázár will be the harbinger of the impertinent, insulting tone that is typical in Fidesz circles. He has also acquired the reputation of being a liar. Most of his assertions are unfounded, and the Hungarian media can usually prove it within days. In his “government info” on February 11 he accused the teachers’ unions of refusing the offer to negotiate and instead opting to create a fracas (balhé). The teachers were understandably offended. First of all, they have been negotiating with the government, admittedly unsuccessfully, since January. Second, fracases are not the style of the anti-Fidesz forces in general. So far all of their demonstrations have been peaceful and dignified, unlike that of the national-Christian forces supporting Fidesz in the fall of 2006. In addition, Lázár accused the unions of “creating a political brawl” because their leaders have been organizing demonstrations against the government. As if a demonstration against a government were an unforgivable sin. He also accused unnamed persons and organizations of financing the opposition and indirectly the teachers.

People who have followed the careers of Viktor Orbán and his minions should not be surprised that their reaction to the teachers’ revolt is a total rejection of the idea that the chaos created by the new law on public education is somehow their fault. This is especially the case because everybody knows that the concept of the new educational system came straight from the “Great Leader,” as he is nicknamed by his critics. Apparently during 2010 and 2011 when Zoltán Pokorni, Fidesz minister of education in the first Orbán government, tried to counter Orbán’s arguments in favor of centralization and offered examples and numbers, Orbán replied, “Zoli, you can bring up all sorts of facts and figures, but I have a different opinion.”

So, what was Orbán’s first reaction to the unrest among the teachers? In his opinion, the teachers are egged on by outside forces. It simply cannot be the case that “Oszkár Pilz wakes up one nice morning in Miskolc and suddenly realizes that he is extremely dissatisfied and begins to write a letter and protest.”

Viktor Orbán, perhaps because he has been in the international limelight lately and has seen support for Fidesz increase as a result of the refugee crisis, feels very confident. Most likely overconfident. He thinks that the situation today is less dangerous than it was last October when thousands marched to protest the internet tax. His confidence, I believe, is misplaced. Then the protesters had only one simple demand: to withdraw a bill that hadn’t even been voted on. Today the teachers insist on dismantling the entire edifice that was forced on them and their students. To satisfy them will be a great deal more difficult than Orbán imagines.

I suspect that there is considerable confusion within Fidesz over the whole issue. I understand that there are several Fidesz bigwigs who have doubts about the current system. After all, most of them have children or grandchildren and are therefore fully aware of the problems that make successful teaching and learning in this new system close to impossible. For the time being at least, they are quiet. It is not advisable to contradict the boss. On the other hand, those who condemn the teachers’ demonstrations began openly criticizing the quality of the teachers, which might further impede any understanding between the government and the teachers’ unions.

While the demonstration was going on, László Palkovics, the undersecretary who replaced Mrs. Czunyi, gave a press conference at which he declared that the demonstration had lost its purpose because everything will be taken care of in the forthcoming roundtable discussions. He charged that the teachers are bringing politics within the walls of the schools. He also accused them of an unwillingness to engage in negotiations. As he put it, “it is a question of taste: some people like to negotiate while others would rather demonstrate.” Another ill-conceived remark.

Former undersecretary for higher education István Klinghammer, former ELTE president, questioned the competence of the teachers. “Just as Lóránd Eötvös said a long time ago, the quality of education depends solely on the quality of the students…. We need teachers who are clever and moral and who can pass these virtues on to their students. That’s why I’m so angry when I see these unshaven, disheveled teachers in checkered shirts on the TV monitor, wandering about.” Rózsa Hoffmann, in her inimitable fashion, said the teachers were “wailing for nothing.” László Posán, a Fidesz MP who used to teach history at the University of Debrecen before he became a politician, also accused the teachers of political bias. According to him, the demonstration was totally uncalled for. Teachers have never had it so good as now. And earlier Posán was known as a moderate who, alongside Zoltán Pokorni, didn’t vote for the public education law in 2011.

So, for the time being an incredible self-confidence prevails. Mind you, some of these statements were made before the demonstration took place and before a public opinion poll was released about public support for the teachers’ demands, which brought some bad news to the Fidesz government.

The poll was conducted by the Publicus Intézet between February 9 and 11. The first surprise is that 90% of the adult population had heard about the demonstrations held in the last few days. Seventy-six percent support the demands of the teachers and only 14% are hostile. The Fidesz claim that the unrest is being fueled by the opposition parties is undercut because two-thirds of Fidesz voters support the demonstrating teachers. What do people see as core problems? Overworked students and teachers, unacceptably low teachers’ salaries, and a lack of textbooks of the teachers’ choice. Two-thirds of people believe that if the demands of the teachers were met, the quality of Hungarian education would improve. Three-quarters of them believe that the quality of education has deteriorated in the last few years and for that state of affairs the government is responsible.

Publicus2

A few days ago rumors circulated to the effect that Fidesz may declare an early election. After all, the argument goes, Fidesz’s popularity is at its height and Fidesz would like to reclaim the two-thirds majority it enjoyed a year ago. Perhaps they should grab the opportunity and ask the people to vote in the next month or so. At the moment the opposition is totally unprepared and support for Fidesz, according to all recent polls, is overwhelming. There is a good chance for them to regain that greatly missed and greatly desired two-thirds.

With Fidesz one doesn’t know what to believe, but if they seriously contemplated an early election, in light of this poll they should abandon any such thought. According to the latest polls that measure party support, 36% of the population is currently undecided. In the poll on education, however, only 10% had no opinion. While some people may be leery about disclosing their political preferences, they exhibit less hesitation when answering questions about education. All in all, the desired two-thirds might not be so easily achieved as some Fidesz leaders thought a few weeks ago.

What the government’s next step is I have no idea. I suspect that Orbán and company don’t either.

February 13, 2016

The Orbán government’s sigh of relief was too hasty: the teachers are not appeased

I must say that last night, after reading some of the early reports on the results of the “negotiations” at the roundtable discussion convened by the ministry of human resources, I was certain that the Orbán government had again managed to quell the widespread dissatisfaction of teachers, parents, and students over the dismal state of Hungarian education.

A few days before the planned mass demonstration of teachers, bus drivers, and railroad workers Zoltán Balog, the minister in charge of education, hastily called together the representatives of diverse organizations. In addition to those with skin in the game, like representatives of the teachers’ unions and the organizers of the current protest, members of civic groups that either have nothing to do with education, like the Hungarian Academy of Artists, or are unknown entities, like the Nemzeti Iskolai Tanács (National School Council), which doesn’t even have a website, also attended. Representatives of organizations that are known to be staunch supporters of the present government, like the parents’ association representing large families, got invitations. But no one from the Diákparlament (Student Parliament), which stands by the teachers in the present conflict, was invited. In brief, Balog made sure that supporters of the government’s position were in the majority around the table.

Those familiar with the Hungarian educational scene were surprised to learn that László Mendrey of the Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete, which is normally highly critical of the government, decided to attend. By contrast, Piroska Galló of the Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ) announced her union’s boycott of the first meeting of the roundtable. A last minute invitee was Péter Madarász, principal of the Ottó Herman Gymnasium in Miskolc, where the movement to change the current educational system had its roots.

After the meeting Balog tried to give the impression that the representatives invited to the roundtable discussion could actually make decisions. But, as Piroska Galló of PSZ pointed out, she received an invitation to “a talk” and not to “negotiations.” The government’s plan is to listen to the complaints and then change as little as possible in the current flawed system. Balog also wants to avoid dealing with scholars whose field is education because he knows that most of them are against the educational philosophy espoused by the Orbán government. So, he made sure that only those experts would be welcome “who have something worthwhile to add to the topic.” That in Fidesz parlance means: only those who agree with us.

László Mendrey made a huge mistake by attending the conversations initiated by the government. Members of his union are now demanding his resignation, and some of them have already quit. Their dissatisfaction stemmed from his comments after the meeting that “the conversations were encouraging” because the government officials were ready to discuss even the most sensitive issues, which means that in the next round they will be able to talk about the role of the state, the autonomy of the institutions, and their economic independence. After the upheaval on Facebook and elsewhere by PDSZ members and teachers in general, the other leader of PDSZ who was present tried to explain what went wrong. The union’s original idea was to leave the meeting immediately after the first negative answer to one of their key demands. The government, however, outfoxed them and was ready to talk about anything. Therefore, they had no occasion to get up and leave. Well, talk is cheap, and it should have been clear to Mendrey that convening the roundtable a few days before the planned demonstration had only one purpose: to prevent the demonstration and a possible strike. With the passage of time and the promise of a few bones perhaps the teachers will calm down.

Another clever move was to invite Péter Madarász, principal of the Ottó Herman Gymnasium. The ministry officials must have known that he doesn’t fully share the opinions of his teachers and that, after a little sweet talk, he would support the government’s position of very limited changes to the current system. (The principal of the Blanka Teleki Gymnasium in Budapest, who appeared in several television discussions and who stands squarely behind the teachers’ demands, was not invited.) Madarász got the royal treatment. He sat at the head table alongside Zoltán Balog, Péter Horváth of the National Teachers’ Corps, and László Palkovics, the new undersecretary. Balog had a little tête-à-tête with the principal, and the rest is history. He expressed his total satisfaction with what transpired at the meeting. Balog asked Madarász to convince the teachers in and around Miskolc to participate in the forthcoming negotiations. Afterward, in an interview with Olga Kálmán, he expressed his ambivalence about attending the demonstration after such a successful conversation with Balog and Palkovics.

Zoltán Balog is charming Tamás Madarász, principal of Ottó Herman Gymnasium

Zoltán Balog is charming Tamás Madarász, principal of the Ottó Herman Gymnasium

So, although last night it seemed that the government had won this round, then came today. The original organizers of the movement in the name of the 737 schools which supported them published a statement in which they succinctly presented their demands. At the same time they disavowed the principal of Ottó Herman Gymnasium who, they claimed, spoke only in his own name.

  1. The government should declare that it considers the present law on education temporary and immediately should begin talks with the proper representatives of public education to create a new law on education.
  1. We demand that the discussions on the new law on public education should deal with the professional basics.
  1. We demand that the government spends 6% of the GDP on education.
  1. We demand immediate changes in the rules and regulations that make the situation of students and teachers unbearable.

It was signed by Katalin Törley, Ferenc Kölcsey Gymnasium, Budapest; Olivér Pilz, Ottó Herman Gymnasium, Miskolc; and István Pukli, principal, Blanka Teleki Gymnasium.

Meanwhile Piroska Galló explained why her union decided not to attend the meeting called together by Zoltán Balog. At the moment there exists a strike committee in which both PSZ and PDSZ participate. It is Zoltán Balog who represents the government in these negotiations, but during many meetings the minister’s position has been entirely negative with regard to the teachers’ demands. Therefore she can’t imagine what use such a roundtable discussion could be unless it is to pacify the teachers and pull the wool over their eyes. On Friday the strike committee is scheduled to meet Balog, and Galló is curious whether Balog’s “rigid position” changed or not as a result of his conversations with the invited representatives. In my opinion, there will be a change in the government’s position only if the demonstration turns out to be a real show of force.

February 10, 2016