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The 1975 Teachers’ Strike – Some Reminiscences

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A lot has been said about the teacher’s strike, most of it failing to take into account the context that spawned the events surrounding the strike that lasted from November 3 to December 3. What I seek to do here is to give some personal reflections and to reconstruct the story based largely on notes I had taken at that time. The year 1975 reflected much of the 1970s, a period that was also reminiscent of the 1930s, a period of unrest and serious societal challenges. Some of the headlines in the Vincentian newspaper reflect the times – “Hungry Nurses Invade Minister’s Home”, “Cool it”, “Disharmony in Education”. Although we remember 1975 for the teachers’ strike, we must not forget the struggles of the nurses and civil servants. In fact the crisis began first at the General Hospital and among the nurses. {{more}}

By 1975 the teachers, under new leadership, had begun the process of transforming the organisation that represented them from a mere association to a full fledged union. This process was taking place in the early part of 1975. To accommodate the new structure and expectations of teachers, a decision was taken to increase the union dues and to become more professionally organised.

As a graduate master at the Boys’ Grammar School, I was technically a member of the Civil Service Association, despite the fact that a secondary school teachers’ organisation existed. Some members of the Secondary School Teachers’ Associa-tion were beginning to question the division of teachers into primary and secondary school teachers.

On Caricom Day, in July, secondary and primary school teachers met at the Peace Memorial Hall to discuss conditions affecting teachers. Working conditions were high on the list of complaints, as was the issue of a $750 back pay based on a $75 dollars a month cost-of-living allowance that was promised by the former junta government. The Labour Party, which came into power following the collapse of that government in 1974, had promised during the election campaign to meet the commitment and boasted of its ability to obtain money. Teachers were now taking them at their word. At that meeting at the Peace Memorial Hall, a decision was taken to approach government in an effort to address outstanding issues.

In its editorial of July 21, 1975, the Vincentian newspaper highlighted some of the problems about which the teachers began to voice their concerns. “Teachers are obviously resentful at the conditions under which they are called upon to teach. They claim a lack of equipment, supplies and space that prohibits efficient handling of classes. They also insist that the salaries and allowances paid to teachers are inadequate for the maintenance of decent living standards and subscribe to the present unsatisfactory situation in which both pupils and teachers are frustrated.”

In August, the following month, an incident involving the Minister of Education and the Union served to heighten the tensions existing. At the opening of the Summer Workshop, held jointly with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, the Minister of Education, who objected to remarks made by the President of the Union about multinational corporations, intervened and ordered the suspension of the Trade Union course that was a part of the summer programme. This led to the collapse of the Summer programme and to the widening of the gulf between the Ministry and teachers.

To fill in the context and better understand the climate at that time, the problems facing nurses and medical services generally, have to be fitted into the conversation. Nurses at the hostel found nothing for supper one evening, although deductions were made from their salaries to meet the cost of meals. Donning their uniforms, some 30 nurses marched to the home of the Minister of Health, Randolph Russell. After outlining their complaints, the minister offered sweet drinks and ice cream. The nurses refused, arguing that they were not going to put gas on gas. The minister later provided corn beef and bread which the nurses accepted but refused the invitation to eat it at the minister’s residence.

The appalling conditions at the hospital were receiving national attention; with among other things, news that the toilets were not working and that a scarcity of soap existed. Nurses were also aggriev-ed, like the teachers, at the failure to meet the commitment to pay their $750 back pay.

Then there was the Dr. Cyrus issue! A tragic comedy if ever there was one. Dr. Cyrus, who was the lone surgeon at the hospital, had informed the authorities that he wanted to take his leave. He reminded them on different occasions, but was informed only three days before he was scheduled to leave the island that they could not recommend it. Cyrus, who complained about physical and mental fatigue, decided to defy it and to go along with his family to St. Lucia.

Then began a comedy of errors! A squad of police was sent to the airport to prevent him leaving. Even more comical was the decision to send the fire truck to block the exit from the ramp to the runway and to prevent the aircraft from leaving by blocking it. With the police cordoning off the area, Cyrus was prevented from leaving on the grounds that he had no income tax clearance. His wife and children, however, boarded the plane, while the large crowd that had then assembled at the airport applauded Cyrus for the position he had taken, and sympathised with his plight.

Cyrus had actually arranged for Dr. Stan Friday from Grenada to replace him. Dr. Friday had indeed been coming to St. Vincent on weekends to relieve the surgeon. The position of the ministry at this point was that they could not afford the $200 dollars a day that was involved in keeping Dr. Friday for the 16 days he was required to be here.

Dr. Cyrus finally left, and Dr. Sydney Gun-Munro, who was then retired and assisting with medical service in Bequia where he then lived, was invited to replace him. On his return, Dr. Cyrus was asked to proceed on 45 days compulsory leave. He decided to challenge this, but when he returned to his clinic the next day, the benches were removed. His reaction was to replace the benches and hold his clinic.

A decision was then taken to suspend him from further duties at the hospital and to force him to take the compulsory leave. This aggravated the nurses, who began a period of protest. Matters were moving to a climax. Their disapproval was expressed at a meeting held with the Civil Service Association and the Commercial Technical and Allied Workers Union. The industrial climate was degenerating further and the atmosphere was created for a series of actions, including the teachers’ strike of November to December 1975. (Part 1).

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