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Teachers End Strike, Union Leaders Threaten New Action in Zimbabwe 

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Teachers across Zimbabwe struck for three weeks last month over demands for higher pay. The country's unity government is coming under increasing pressure as it struggles to raise funds for education and other basic services in the face of depleted revenues caused by the country's economic problems.

The teachers strike closed schools and caused parents to worry that their children might lose a second school year to the country's economic crisis.

Like most civil servants in Zimbabwe, teachers have been earning about $100 a month. The power-sharing government offered this salary to all civil servants after its inauguration in March.

The new government took over following years of hyper-inflation that had eroded salaries, devastated economic production and caused widespread unemployment and food shortages.

It said the salary was a temporary measure until it could revitalize the economy and restore government revenues.

The president of one of two main teachers unions, Raymond Majongwe of the Progressive Teachers Union, says teachers want $500. But they decided to end the strike because it was hurting the children.

"The best way for teachers is go back to the schools and teach and allow their leadership to engage government," he said. "Then more positive results are going to come. We are killing ourselves because the very children who are not learning are our own children."

Zimbabwe's education system has been in decline for a decade, due to falling government revenues and an exodus of teachers.

Analysts blame the crisis on the policies of President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, but the party blames the problems on sanctions imposed by Western countries.

Education Minister David Coltart is a member of the former-opposition Movement for Democratic Change that joined the government as part of the power-sharing agreement between Mr. Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

Coltart has been trying to rebuild the school system on a shoestring budget.

"The problem that we face, however, as a government, is that our economy is in state of near-collapse," he said. "Our treasury coffers are almost bare."

The United Nations recently donated $70-million for materials for Zimbabwe's schools. But donor countries hesitate to subsidize salaries for fear the funds will be diverted.

Coltart says he can only hope additional funding begins to flow in the next six months.

"I cannot today make any promises and all that I can do is to call on the sense of patriotism of our teachers and the trade union movement to recognize that we are acting in good faith, but there is a limit to what we can do," added Coltart.

Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions President Lovemore Matombo says the group's 350,000 workers in 32 trade unions are struggling to survive. But he says economic reforms eight months ago ended hyper-inflation and restored some economic production.

"The workers now know that the economy has started to stabilize and that there should be an increase of salaries," said Matombo. "Should they fail to do that [increase salaries], there is very much this feeling among workers that we should take [strike] action."

He says if worker demands are not met, there could be strikes before the end of the year, placing more pressure on the unity government and Zimbabwe's economy.