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The 1975 Teachers’ Strike – Some Reminiscences

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Part 11

The Industrial climate in St. Vincent between August and November 1975 was one filled with tension. There was never a dull moment as issue after issue emerged to further heighten the tension. The Civil Service Association (CSA), Commercial, Technical and Allied Workers Union (CTAWU), and the St. Vincent Union of Teachers (SVUT) were all caught up in the issues of the day – the CTAWU representing some categories of hospital workers. The unions worked together closely since the public servants were fighting over some of the same issues and in any event they saw their struggle as one struggle. {{more}} The Cyrus issue was taken over by the nurses and hospital workers who began a period of protest against the treatment meted out to Dr. Cyrus.

Following a meeting between nurses, the CSA, officials of other unions and senior hospital personnel, the hospital workers decided to march from the Medical Department to the Ministry of Health where Health Minister, Randolph Russell, who had agreed to meet a delegation, subsequently refused when an increased number turned up. The nurses marched into the Ministry where they almost literally ran into Premier Cato who informed them that he had instructed the Minister not to meet with the delegation. Full stop!

At a subsequent meeting between officials of the Civil Service Association, nurses and other public servants and teachers a number of decisions were taken, among them, the picketing of the Minister’s home and the boycotting of products with which he was associated. I remember vividly that meeting at the Nurses’ hostel and the decisions taken. One of the products on the boycott list was Cocoa Cola, Russell being the local agent. (I must say that I have not drunk Cocoa Cola since then.)

After a march to the Ministry undertaken by the nurses and sympathisers, a number of workers were charged, some transferred and others put on half pay. Notice of this action reached them by September 10. Their response through the CSA and supported by the CTAWU was to write to the Ministry giving them 48 hours by which to specify charges against the hospital workers, failing which they would resume work. The Civil Service Association, in a letter of September 16, gave a 48-hour ultimatum to the government to suspend letters of transfers to the nurses, to deal with the Cyrus issue and matters relevant to it and at the same time finally endorsed the action taken by the nurses. The union, however, was hamstrung by an ineffective executive that was unwilling to take any serious action against the government. The only alternative left for the members was to call a meeting to discuss a motion of no confidence in the executive or at least, some members.

Matters spilled over into October when on Monday, October 6, nurses, hospital workers and union members who were charged for participating in the illegal march appeared before the magistrate. A full court room, including nurses, teachers and other members of the public had gone to lend moral support. A number of lawyers assembled to defend the group. The trial was, however, adjourned, in fact was adjourned on three occasions.

The issues were taken up by the newspapers and other pressure groups/political parties. The Star newspaper came strongly to the defence of the government and began a vicious crusade against the public workers that continued during the period of the teachers’ strike. It involved manufacturing all sorts of falsities to poison the minds of the public against the teachers and other public servants. It even suggested that the Teachers House was a virtual whore house. Yulimo and the DFM through their organs, “Freedom” and the “Tree” and at public meetings gave support to the struggles of the teachers and nurses, as the battle continued between government and the workers to win public support.

The teachers were, meanwhile, continuing their struggle, sending letters to the Government and meeting at one stage with Premier Cato. A general meeting of teachers was planned for September 13, to which an invitation was sent to the nurses. Matters related to the struggles of both groups were discussed and a decision was taken at the meeting to show their solidarity with the nurses by marching down Bay Street and across the hospital. This resulted in further charges against teachers and nurses for involvement in an illegal march. The law specified that with the exception of funerals any public procession must give 24 hours notice. They stepped up their campaign with a letter of September 23 to the government requesting dialogue before October 8. The Union suggested a date of October 29th but asked that if that date was not convenient, they indicate an alternative date by September 26. By October 7 there was no response. The next step in the long drawn out struggle was a decision by teachers to boycott the statehood celebrations by not participating in planned school activities. Teachers objected to the holding of elaborate celebrations at a time when the government claimed that it had no money to deal with the matters of public servants.

The Union submitted and publicised widely its five demands which were centred on: working conditions; retroactive payment; salary revision; the Public Service Act and a Collective Agreement between the Union and Government. A letter of October informing government of impending strike action on November 3 was sent to the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education and copied to the Minister of Labour and Labour Commissioner. The die was certainly cast. Incidentally on that same Monday, November 3, teachers along with nurses were to appear in court for participating in the illegal march of September 13, the march held in solidarity with the nurses.

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