Teachers in front of Portimão Town Hall on Tuesday, January 17
Teachers in front of Portimão Town Hall on Tuesday, January 17 Photo: MICHAEL BRUXO/OPEN MEDIA GROUP

Government resumes talks with striking teachers

President intervenes: teachers’ demands are fair

In another week of unutterable misery for working parents – as schools everywhere remained shut due to teachers’ strikes and industrial action – President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has waded into the fray, opining that teachers’ demands are both “understandable and fair”.

Marcelo made his views clear less than 24 hours before government representatives were due to get round the table and resume talks with syndicate leaders.

As the Resident went to press, hopes were pinned on some kind of breakthrough in order to avoid yet further disruption to pupils’ education (which has already suffered under two years of pandemic restrictions).

Previous days had seen “the largest teachers protest in years” convene in Lisbon over the weekend, with thousands of teachers, non-teaching staff and supporters, waving placards demanding “respect”, “dignity in the profession”, “a public school system (that works)” and dismissal of current education minister João Costa.

Even before the weekend, an impromptu ‘movement of citizens’ came together in Lisbon and Porto – this one calling for “Government OUT!”

Citizens’ opinions on how the PS Socialist absolute majority has handled this situation are far from positive.

Mário Nogueira, secretary-general of FENPROF, the federation of teaching syndicates, warned that if negotiations with his federation on Friday do not lead in the right direction, teachers’ industrial action will simply continue.

And he warned that, in such a scenario, “new forms of struggle” would be instigated.

All this unrest has been going on as the government itself is fighting multiple ‘scandals’ – essentially based on cronyism and a perceived sense of impunity within the PS Socialist ‘family’.

Endless allegations in almost every form of media have seen to it that the ‘common citizen’ now appears hugely suspicious of the motives of political leaders.

Even in the Algarve – where generally the trials and tribulations within the Lisbon power bubble pass unnoticed – teachers have been reacting with a fervour.

Protests, particularly in the Portimão area, have been high-profile, and almost ‘euphoric’ in as much as teachers have been seen “singing and dancing in the streets” – as parents in the municipality are struggling to be able to work due to their actions.

All in all, the sense that things simply cannot go on as they have been was used by the country’s head of State on Tuesday seemingly to push the government towards concessions.

Speaking to journalists at Infarmed – where he decorated outgoing director of health Graça Freitas – Marcelo said: “Tomorrow, a new round of talks begins. I consider it positive to have understood what has been resolved and what has not, but may be easy to resolve, and what will be difficult to resolve. And now we’ll see how the conversations go. We have to have conversations in good faith, on both sides, they have to be constructive conversations” in order not to see current disruption stretch, he suggested, all the way to Carnival (in February).

And this is where Marcelo ‘stuck his head out’, in as much as teachers’ complaints are “understandable and fair”.

He said “there is room for dialogue” in issues “that relate to the proximity of residence, of home in relation to the school where they will teach”, to bureaucracy and “others that have to do with aspects of the status of teachers”.

“The only one that I see as more difficult, because it implies a lot of money, or implies a substantial change, is the recognition – especially if it’s all at once, if it’s not phased in – of what the career sacrifices of teachers were really due to successive crises in the past. But that is still a matter of seeing whether there is room or no room to try to equate that. I think it is difficult, but it is possible that there is (room),” he said.

Addressing the weekend’s chants of “goodbye João Costa”, Marcelo said this is not “a problem of ministers A, B, C, D or E” because “many of the solutions imply decisions by several ministries, namely the finance ministry”. In other words, the ‘deadlock’ up until now has been because of “the position of the government” as a whole. And this needs to change.

“We have had two years practically lost (in education) because of the pandemic. A third year with ups and downs, back and forth, is of no interest to anyone,” Marcelo stressed.

When teachers first went on strike after Christmas, people “thought it was a kind of prolongation of the Christmas holidays and the end of the year. Now they are starting to have very serious problems; picking up children, not picking up children, students with special needs, scheduling family life, worrying about assessments (…) I think everyone stands to gain – the government stands to gain, teachers stand to gain – if dialogue goes well”.

In a few apparently off-the-cuff statements, President Marcelo put the government in check: “The country’s teachers have a case; deal with it.”

By Natasha Donn