Thousands of protesters marched through Lithuania's capital Vilnius on Sunday demanding higher wages for teachers, piling pressure on the Baltic state's government ahead of a budget vote. The protesters, including teachers, urged the ruling Farmers and Greens Union party, which swept into power in 2016 pledging to help less-privileged Lithuanians, to drop a recent tax cut in order to raise more money for schools.
The government of the EU state of 2.8 million people cut labour taxes earlier this year, but critics say the dip in revenues will hit the public sector. Police said some 6,000 people took part in the peaceful protest held to show solidarity with more than a thousand teachers currently striking for higher wages.
Those on strike make up around 2.5 percent of the country's teachers, who have an average monthly salary of 934 euros ($1,063). "We want fewer children in classes, we want one extra euro per hour and a fair pay system," trade union leader Andrius Navickas told the crowd in front of the government building in Vilnius, calling the demand "realistic".
"Let's raise teachers above political intrigues," he added. Protester Ruta Ziliukaite, a sociologist, said the Lithuanian tax system failed to adequately finance education, health care, social security and culture. Seeking to defuse tensions, Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis dismissed Education Minister Jurgita Petrauskiene earlier this week.
On Saturday, Skvernelis insisted lower taxes would benefit employees in both the public and the private sectors. Some economists say overall education funding in Lithuania is above the EU average, but the system is inefficient as authorities are reluctant to close schools in regions hit by a decline in population caused by an outflow of Lithuanians to western Europe.
The Lithuanian parliament is set to adopt the 2019 budget next Tuesday. The government expects the country's economy to expand by 3.4 percent this year and by 2.8 percent in 2019.