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The Teachers Strike – Some Reminiscences – Part 3

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In early November while the focus of attention was shifting to the impending teachers’ strike slated to begin on Monday, November 3, other issues in the industrial climate continued to fester. Dr. Cyrus was sent on further leave and was charged, I believe, for leaving the country without permission. {{more}}

The nurses, on the second day of the teachers’ strike had the fourth adjournment of their case. Additionally members of the Civil Service Association succeeded in winning a vote of no confidence against some members of their executive. Those ousted were president Stanley Branch, vice president Calvin Nicholls and assistant secretary Leon Huggins. Retained were Felix Cuffy, general secretary and treasurer Noel Kirton. The new executive elected included Stuart Nanton as president, Jerry Scott as vice president, Sylvia Sutherland treasurer, Felix Cuffy, general secretary and Conley Rose, pro and grievance officer.

Monday, November 3, was the big day when the teachers’ strike began. Interestingly on the morning of that same day, 27 teachers were scheduled to appear in court charged with participating in an illegal march on September 13, a spontaneous march held in solidarity with the nurses and their struggles. The cases against the teachers were thrown out on technical grounds, stemming I believe, from an error in the Magistrate’s Office. Teachers then started picketing the Ministry of Education and at different schools in the island.

The strike was seen primarily as a primary school teachers’ strike, but I had become a member of the St. Vincent Union of Teachers (SVUT) earlier in the year and therefore proceeded on strike. I was not then a member of the executive but was drafted on to the organising committee. My main focus on that day and in the early period of the strike was to picket my school and to visit and monitor the situation in the country schools.

On the first day of the strike, if my memory serves me correctly, there was only one other secondary school teacher on strike, Joy Browne. It has to be remembered that most secondary school teachers were not members of the SVUT and that the strike was seen primarily as one involving primary school teachers. Mine was a lonely task, picketing my school that was in full session and away, at least for that morning, from other developments.

Later in the course of the strike other secondary school teachers became members of the Union and joined the strike. But even before that, some secondary school teachers had been expressing solidarity with the cause and actions of the striking teachers.

One must note that the issues against which the teachers were struggling were ones that also affected the secondary schools but the inequities and the archaic system which drew a distinction between secondary school teachers as public servants and other teachers influenced the direction matters were taking. In a strike of this kind that affected the nation’s children, both sides in the dispute fought for public support and sympathy. The Teachers’ Union published a statement outlining its case in the Vincentian and Freedom newspapers on the weekend before the strike.

The government used its radio station and the party organ, the Star. The Vincentian, through its Public Forum run by Kenton Kirby, did a vox populi on the teachers’ strike, with the majority of persons responding sympathising and expressing support for the teachers.

The government’s response was to label the actions of the teachers as being politically motivated, based to a large extent on the fact that President Mike Browne was a member of Yulimo, an activist political group that had been closely scrutinising and attacking the policies of the government.

The Minister of Education suggested that the nation’s children were neglected while teachers focused their attention on trade union activities. He argued, too, that the Union was implicitly asking a government which could not afford to meet their demands to “tax your house, tax your land, take away your property if you can’t pay the tax and distribute it free, I believe, to them”. (Quoted in the Vincentian newspaper).

The teachers never bargained for the kind of pressures that were put on them during the month of November, a difficult month with Christmas a few weeks away and giving our approach to Christmas. Their antagonists spread fear by reminding teachers of their loan commitments at the bank. They were accused of being greedy. Pressure was brought to bear on them through churches, parents and other bodies with which they were associated. Government sympathisers, like Strolling Scribbler, compared teachers with other public servants and concluded that they paled by comparison. He counted the number of holidays teachers got per year and felt that they were simply out to embarrass the government. Teachers seemed, according to his calculations, to spend more time on holidays and union activities than on teaching the children.

The teachers were calling for dialogue with the government but were met with stony silence since the government’s position was that there could be no dialogue while they were on strike.

During the life of the strike all schools in the island were affected either partially or fully. The strike was to last for a month and to reach its climax with the tear-gassing of teachers on that infamous Friday, November 14.

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