Note from the LeftEast editors: The present text, which we co-publish together with TSS, is part of a series of publications and webinars on the topics of social reproduction, (women’s) labor, and migration in East-Central Europe and beyond. The video from the webinar (Post)pandemic struggles in social reproduction, where this text was first presented, can be seen here (in Bulgarian). The aim of the series is to raise awareness about struggles for labor, reproduction, and migrant rights, as well as about the condition of women in society, and how these have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The publications and webinars are coordinated in cooperation between the Bulgarian Left feminist collective LevFem and the platform Transnational Social Strike, and are sponsored by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung – Bulgaria. Most of the participants in the series are part of the newly emergent network EAST (Essential Autonomous Struggles Transnational), which unites activists and workers in/from East-Central Europe. For more information about the network you can contact them at essentialstruggles [at] gmail.com. Reposting articles from this series is allowed with the condition of referring to the original publication source.
The virus suddenly and radically changed our world – several times by now. If during the “first wave” of the pandemic we teachers learned to be adaptive, to use software we had never heard of before, and generally to do the impossible, then the second wave revealed much more clearly that the system we work in is inhumane. How many educators had to die before society perceived school closures as a reasonable measure? How many petitions had to be signed by students and parents, before they were heard by their own headmasters? How many European countries had to enforce extreme measures before our own government suddenly switched gears away from protecting the “economy” at all costs, even at the cost of the lives of medics, teachers, and ordinary people. Looking back not only at the past few months, but also at the history of labor struggles of teachers in Bulgaria in general, we can find inspiration for what we must do today, in order to stay stronger in the future.
The past and present of teachers’ struggles in Bulgaria
Teachers’ movements in Bulgaria have a rich and exciting history, including in the not-so-distant past. In 2007 we witnessed an incredible mobilization of roughly 100,000 education workers. For forty days they applied unprecedented pressure on institutions and society as a whole, which resulted in an actual wage increase despite the negative media pressure and total lack of solidarity from other trade unions protesting over the same period. It appears that the mass mobilization was in fact possible thanks to the coordination between several active teachers’ syndicates across the country. Yet the immediate impact of all those efforts was disappointing and demoralizing. This seems to have had an impact on teachers’ protest culture which can still be felt.
If we look further to the past, we can see an intriguingly rich political culture and active community of teachers, which included long-standing publications, mutual aid funds, and political engagement. From today’s point of view, all this is exceptionally impressive, as the contrast with the current lack of any kind of movement, let alone a mass movement, as well as the lack of solidarity and unity, feels especially painful considering we are faced with a profound and wide-reaching health and social crisis.
The pandemic demonstrated how ill-prepared school environments are to face the challenges of a public-health crisis. It also revealed many problems that had been bubbling under the surface, such as a lack of unity and coordinated reaction on behalf of education workers. On one hand, live classes pose a serious threat to the health and even the life of education workers – as we saw from the inordinately high number of school-workers of all ages, who fell victim to the virus and the inadequate healthcare system. On the other hand, online education forces teachers to work in thoroughly inadequate working conditions, without adequate preliminary preparation, often with reduced working hours and hence, reduced wages. The consequences of this were also felt heavily by educators teaching individually or privately, whose wages, social and health insurance, as well as opportunities for days on sick-leave and paid-leave, are limited at best. The consequences are also felt in terms of the lack of technological equipment or internet connection, with it being almost taken for granted that the teachers would provide these themselves. We are left with the feeling that the general disposition across society, and among co-workers and institutions, is “everyone for themselves.”
Remote education and virtual activism
Pushback against the high death-rate among teachers as restrictions were loosened and schools opened was heard solely on social media. A modest Facebook group of less than 3,000 people appeared, including many parents and like-minded individuals, often not even living in Bulgaria. Together they organized a petition asking that schools be closed and online education reinstated, and wrote letters which were widely, albeit sometimes antagonistically, reported in the local media.
These initiatives generally have not received mass public support, nor do they have the support of trade unions. This group did show, however, that in smaller towns there are indeed self-organized groups, mostly of parents, but in some cases also of pupils, who exert pressure on their local authorities to choose remote online education – and some have succeeded. We also observed some small mutual aid groups, such as those trying to support children without access to online platforms, or children of teachers who succumbed to the virus while the schools were open. We now see not only that we cannot depend on state institutions, but that in their indifference and inadequate policies, these institutions put our lives in danger and in some cases kill us. We see that organizing from the bottom up can have an effect, but it is almost impossible to do so when there are no foundations for it. We might assume, for example, that parents are more likely to protest, because they are not dependent on school management in the same way that the teachers are. Smaller towns may have better conditions for organizing locally, because the communities themselves might have more opportunities to communicate and cooperate with each other than in bigger cities where the culture of individualism, alienation, and lack of experience and skills for this kind of collaboration, are felt much more sharply. On top of that, in the cities such efforts require many more engaged individuals if they are to reach a critical mass that can bring about significant change.
Allies in the intersections
According to data for 2019/2020 from the National Statistical Institute, public school teachers are overwhelmingly women (85.6%), and one third of all teachers are over the age of 55. These facts instantly put us teachers in a position from which we can easily sympathize with the struggles of medical workers, who share similar demographics in their own sector. Another parallel between the two which is harder to measure, but familiar to all who work in our sphere, is that many teachers are working at more than one workplace, often in the private sector, without contracts and hence without insurance. Education workers are often apathetic or overworked, or both, to a large extent because long hours of work with children (and their parents) are emotionally, psychologically, and physically draining; moreover, often a large part of the work is unrecognized and unpaid. All this is normalized by society and internalized by the teachers, because it is as a teacher’s “natural role” to do more out of “the goodness of her heart,” or out of dedication to her “calling,” so that she does not require or need additional payment. Some forms of care work are hardly perceived as something which people should or could ask to be paid for, much less as something they could refuse to do for free.
Our circumstances are thus much like those of medical workers’, but instead of making connections based on solidarity, we are set up against each other, as we can see every time a wage hike for teachers is discussed in the news. On the one hand, the increase in teachers’ wages was constantly being brought up in discussions about nurses’ protests, always with disdain. On the other hand, during the quarantine in March 2020, for example, it was common to hear people scandalised by the idea that cash-register workers in big supermarkets (also predominantly women) were earning more than nurses. It was implied that this type of work is inferior, as it is unqualified, does not save lives and hence does not “deserve” higher wages, while the fact that medical workers received even less than cashiers is perceived as especially degrading.
Meanwhile, an Austrian study titled “Corona Crisis: Society is held up by women” showed that nurses and cashiers alike were continually on the “front line” during quarantine. The data suggested that in times of a national (and, as we know, international) crisis, the typically low-paid labor of some of the only sectors which remained active at all times, namely care-workers, grocery store employees and medical workers (not including doctors) is overwhelmingly done by women. Each of these sectors is made up of a minimum of 70% women. And, at least in Bulgaria, all are notoriously underpaid and overworked. But even without all these parallels, nothing could justify workers in any of these sectors having to endure miserable conditions and miniscule pay. We should not allow the struggles of different workers to be used against one other, especially since they are often between those working in low-paid and feminized professions. There is so much more to gain from our mutual solidarity and collective action.
Other important allies can be found among parents, who it turned out have more existing structures of mutual aid and communication than the professional communities in feminized sectors of labor did. During the first wave, parents of school-aged children were forced to work or remain at home (often without income), which on the one hand allowed them to mind their younger children, but on the other, obstructed their own ability to work, especially when more than one electronic device was required. The second wave, however, was even more full of contradictions. Parents continued to work outside the home, while even the youngest of children were left without day-care, kindergarten or school. Once again, we witnessed the total lack of a holistic approach to this crisis – one that could have met the needs of the people and guaranteed their material conditions, in order to allow them to actually follow the measures being enforced.
The need for hope
During the webinar organized by LevFem with a teacher, a nurse, a trade unionist, and a care-worker, we discussed our shared impression of a lack of solidarity from both colleagues and the general public, and asked ourselves why that is. From a practical perspective, the lack of active and engaged workers mobilized within trade unions is clear, as are the lack of legal, economic, and social conditions for an effective strike. Simultaneously, the word “consciousness” came up, as did the feeling that there is not enough of it in our society, and even when it is present, people do not have the hope that something will ever change, let alone that they might contribute to it. Like nurse Nadezhda Margenova, I hope that we will all recognize the need for radical unionism – for organizing in the workplace for effective strikes and generally in the framing of working conditions. I hope more and more of us recognize feminism as a movement for equality, despite the constant efforts of the movement’s opponents to denigrate the very word as dirty, scandalous, or even irrelevant. I truly hope that we realize the inhumane reality of capitalism, an economic system which places profit above all life, no matter whether this model is forced onto us by state or corporate power, or by both simultaneously.
Primarily as a teacher of art, but also as an artist, I believe that if all of this is to happen, we are in dire need of developing our collective imagination, creativity and our ability to entertain the idea that things really can and must be different. Art is a tool through which we can process, overcome and share difficult experiences. It can serve as a connection with our history, just as it can provide a way to imagine a better future. Art, when it is socially conscious and radical, has the potential to impact our entire culture, even if bit by bit. Art in different forms can challenge accepted norms, make us think, open new opportunities and inspire. Much like with care work, all artistic labor and contribution to society is crushed by our patriarchal culture and capitalist economy. Art, especially the socially conscious kind, does not possess commercial value, which is the only reason why any form of art is valued in neoliberal society. During the full lockdown, art was a refuge for all of us, it helped us maintain our mental health. While everything else was interrupted and the world was full of fear, contradictions and uncertainties, movies, books and music continued to bring meaning into our lives. Despite this, artists behind this life-sustaining labor were predictably left without any opportunities to show their work, as well as practically no financial or social support.
This crisis had an especially harsh impact on the already precarious position of artists in our society, but that is not enough to stop us. The capitalist economy has always left an incredibly small window of opportunity for survival with artistic work, but art is made nevertheless, precisely because its real worth and the need for it are beyond the reach of this system. That is why artistic labor is such an invaluable instrument in the struggle for change – because it is one of the few things that have the magical ability to create something that does not yet exist, to inspire hope, courage, and the faith that things really can be different, and that the fight is worth it.
Teachers, nurses, syndicalists, care-workers, and artists, patients and students, workers and the unemployed – we all depend on each other and we are all stronger together. Another world IS possible – with solidarity, mutual aid and struggle!
Darina K. is a young person working across art, education, and activism. She is a third-generation teacher, although she has been working in the field for just 3 years. She studied social policy in Scotland, where she deepened her political engagement. The problematics surrounding women’s role in society features in her artistic work, including the series of portraits she contributed to the feminist exhibition “Everything is fine” in March 2020.