It is no secret that the class struggle in the Baltic states has been stagnant since the restoration of capitalism in 1991. But now, we are beginning to see a change in the situation, with a national, three-day strike by education workers in April. This is a sign of things to come.
In Latvia, OECD data indicates that between 2000-2010 there were zero days lost to strike action per 1,000 workers annually. While this does come with some caveats – such as the exclusion of public sector, political, and unauthorised strikes – the data is still striking.
Neither the economic damage caused by the breakup of the USSR and the gradual departure of a third of Latvia’s population since 1991, nor the economic shock of the 2008 crash, resulted in any sort of revival of the class struggle. This is a product of the national chauvinism that accompanied the breakup of the USSR, and the division of the working class by political elites who fan the flames of rabid sectarianism against the Russian-speaking minority of Russians, Ukranians and Byelorussians.
However, throughout the preceding period, the ‘old mole’ of history has been burrowing beneath Latvian society. The current economic crash, a product of the organic crisis of world capitalism, catalysed by the pandemic and the Ukraine War, has sent reverberations through the country.
On top of spiralling energy prices, Latvian workers and youth are also facing inordinate inflation rates, with consumer prices rising by 20.3 percent year-on-year in February 2023. Fresh layers of the workers are beginning to enter the fray, breaking the deadlock that emerged after 1991.
Education on the line
In September of 2022, 23,000 education workers, organised in the Latvian Education and Science Workers’ Union (LIZDA), mobilised for strike action. As in many other countries, teachers are suffering from excessive workloads and declining real wages.
But days before this strike action was set to commence, it was cut across by a deal between the union and the government.
However, the deal fell short of the goals previously set by the teachers. It failed to solve the shortage of staff, and thereby the problem of excessive workloads. The issue of wages was not resolved either.
Hopes of a quiet resolution were dashed when the government’s 2023 budget made wage rises conditional upon “optimisation of the school network” – in other words: cutbacks, reorganisation, and more stress and strain on the existing workforce. This was nothing short of a betrayal of the deal reached last autumn.
Consequently, LIZDA responded to the budget with an ultimatum on 15 February, giving the government until 15 March to amend the budget in line with the previous agreement. If the government failed to meet this demand, the union threatened a protest march on 24 April, to be followed by an all-Latvian teachers' strike.
Contrary to statements made by the Minister for Education and Science, Anda Čakša, who indicated that there is enough money to raise wages this year, Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš has stated that wage rises would require either an increase in VAT or cuts to other sectors such as defence, pensions or healthcare.
These are classic divide-and-rule tactics. Kariņš has emphasised that wage improvements could only come at the cost of other workers' disposable income and at the expense of other key public services; or by a reduction in defence.
The regime in Riga is one of the most aggressive voices in favour of escalating the Ukraine war and deepening conflict with Russia. Any cuts to the military budget are thus deemed unacceptable, while workers at home are expected to shoulder the burden of the crisis.
By making wage rises conditional upon the “optimisation of the school network”, Kariņš has demagogically attacked teachers for choosing money over reform.
Kariņš has bragged about making €124.3 million available for increases in teachers’ wages – more than any sector in Latvia since 1991. But, as the president of LIZDA, Inga Vanaga, has rightly pointed out, this vague “optimisation of the school network” is a step into the unknown, and is outside of teachers’ control. According to Vanaga, teachers in 23 of Latvia’s 110 municipalities would receive no wage rises whatsoever.
That is because the planned payrise only addresses the lowest wage for teachers, which would raise from €7.50 to €8.50. For Latvia’s lowest-paid teachers that would amount to just short of a 14 percent pay rise, not an inconsiderable amount even if it does fall short of year-on-year inflation. However it would also be unrolled across the space of three years, culminating in December of 2025! This would remain a considerable real-terms pay cut by the time it is implemented, not to mention its limited coverage.
Escalate the struggle
It should come as no surprise that the Latvian government did not hold up its end of the bargain with LIZDA. The goal was not to reach a compromise but to buy time for manoeuvre, and to portray teachers as greedy.
It is true that all sectors are suffering a shortage of money, but workers and youth must reject the prime minister’s conclusion that we must therefore “co-operate” in the interests of saving the capitalist system.
The bosses have the money to pay for public services, but as long as it is in private hands it will sit idly in their bank accounts. This wealth should be democratically utilised to reinvest in essential services, for the benefit of all.
A month has passed and the government hasn’t moved an inch. Consequently, LIZDA has committed to the protest march on 24 April which will be followed by three days of strike action at the end of the month. This is a step in the right direction. But this struggle must be broadened and escalated. We therefore welcome the announcement by the Latvian Medical Association (LAB) that medical workers will stand alongside striking teachers.
The pressure is on for the ruling class The Baltic News Network’s recent summary of the week spoke of an “ever-brewing” conflict between workers and the government which is reaching a “critical mass”. This is not the optimistic language of a confident ruling class in the saddle.
As the class struggle in Latvia begins to heat up, new layers of the working class will begin to draw radical conclusions. They will realise that the resources they require can only be freed up through the expropriation of industry and wealth. These are the only means to secure wage rises and improvements in health and education on a meaningful basis.
Such a programme demands revolutionary leadership, and in the absence of a revolutionary workers' party, the onus will be on these fresh layers to form it. These new layers must rediscover the rich, revolutionary traditions of the Latvian working class, and show the government that the period of ‘class peace’ – i.e. daylight robbery by the ruling class – was nothing more than a temporary lull in the class war.