A nationwide strike of Poland's public school teachers entered its second week Monday with the right-wing government, which is paying generous benefits to pensioners and other targeted groups, saying it doesn't have money to meet teachers' pay demands.
Teachers are demanding a 30% raise, arguing that most of them earn less than supermarket cashiers. But after boosting benefits for pensioners and parents of young children, and giving tax exemptions to young professionals, the Polish government said it only can afford to a pay increase half the size of what teachers cited and won't discuss going any higher.
"There is no money in the 2019 state budget for the increases to be higher" than the 15% pay raise for this year the government offered, Education Minister Anna Zalewska said.
The declaration was a sign of how politics overrode fiscal discipline in the lead up to May's European Union parliament elections and Poland's general election in the fall, as well as of the limit to the government's largesse.
Poland's deficit was 0.5% of GDP during the 2018 budget cycle, while the government said it wants to keep it this year within a raised limit of 3% of GDP.
In shaping public spending decisions, the ruling Law and Justice party is guided "less by the intention to meet the needs of various professional groups, but rather by the drive to secure itself victory in the elections," said Ewa Marciniak, a political scientist at the University of Warsaw.
Marciniak also thinks the government doesn't want to grant teachers' demands because "it fears that could lead to similar calls from other professional groups," such as nurses, doctors and police officers.
The pre-election bonuses Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski promised for families and pensioners this year cost about 20 billion zlotys ($5 billion.)
Citing that figure, head of main teachers' union ZNP, Slawomir Broniarz, said striking educators don't accept that the government cannot find money to pay them more.
"We want to earn proper money and live in dignity," Broniarz said in calling for negotiations to resume immediately.
Poland's teachers have net earnings of 1,800 zlotys to 3,000 zlotys ($470 to $780) a month.
"Our situation is really scandalous," said Marta Machajek, who teaches high school English in Warsaw.
"This is not really about hikes," Machajek said. "This is about catching up with the rising national average. Teachers can see the widening gap between their situation and that of their students' parents, especially if the parents work in the private sector or in corporations, and they feel like paupers."
The majority of Poland's hundreds of thousands of teachers continue to strike, idling schools and kindergartens. Many parents have had no childcare option except taking their small children along to work.
The strike, however, did not prevent primary school graduation exams from being held Monday in almost 13,000 schools for some 377,000 students. Whether high school matriculation exams will take place next month remains uncertain.
Still, massive rallies have been held in support of the teachers. Marciniak sees the public backing as a criticism of the government policies.
"Some of my colleagues say that timing a strike during key exams is unethical, but I think this is the only pressure mechanism the teachers have," Machajek said.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has proposed scheduling negotiations that include parents as well as teachers for some time after the long Easter weekend.