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The 1975 teachers strike – some reminiscences (Part iv)

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An incident of Thursday, November 13, was a harbinger of developments that erupted on the following Friday, November 14, a day when teachers lost their political innocence, at least so it appeared.

On Thursday, a number of teachers went to the office of the Minister of Education and on being told he was not present, decided to remain, refusing to leave when requested to do so. {{more}}The police were called; the teachers or most of them were arrested, put into the police van and taken to police headquarters where they were granted bail. It was on that same Thursday that permission granted earlier to march was withdrawn.

Having been so informed a meeting of members of the Teachers Union was convened at the Victoria Park where a decision was taken to proceed with the march. The Union’s call for dialogue was not taken up and teachers wanted an occasion to highlight their case to the public.

The original path of the march was to have been from Arnos Vale to Kingstown. A decision was taken to march instead from the Richmond Hill Playing Field along Bay Street. Sympathetic members of the public including some parents joined the Teachers’ march. I remember being at the rear as we proceeded quietly along Bay Street.

As we moved along that street the march was brought to a sudden halt. From our position at the back we realized that the police had stopped us. Everything was quiet and there appeared to be no attempt to contravene the orders to stop. It was therefore a complete surprise when canisters of tear gas were shot into the air, affecting not only the marchers, but school children and other passers-by whose curiosity had brought them to the scene. The crowd scampered but not before one person, a student from one of the secondary schools, was hit by one of the shells and had to be hospitalized.

The police then appeared to have taken leave of their senses and continued with the firing of tear gas onto the area of Back Street where the office of the Teachers’ Union was targeted. The power of the state was unleashed on hundreds of innocent people who had seen the occasion merely as an opportunity to take their case to the public. Teachers at the head of the march including President Mike Browne and Vice President Yvonne Francis Gibson along with a number of other teachers were arrested and kept in custody until 5 a.m. on the following Monday when they were released on bail. The celebrated case of Yvonne Francis Gibson was publicized in a letter she wrote outlining her treatment. Gibson was isolated from the other teachers and put into the gaol at Calliaqua. She described the conditions in her cell:

“My first impression of my new cell was that it had been occupied in the past by madmen. The walls were decorated with handprints of filth and the only piece of furniture – a wooden platform – was smeared all over with filth. One corner of the small room was used as a urinal and the overpowering stench of highly charred urine affected one’s head as well as stomach…”

On the Monday when teachers were released a candlelight vigil was held in the yard of the St. Martin’s Secondary School, an occasion that provided some of the leaders who were arrested with an opportunity to speak about their ordeal. The homes of the Minister of Education and the Premier were picketed. The police stopped a motorcade that was on its way to the Leeward side of the island to visit schools and express solidarity with the Union members there. I remembered being in the car leading the motorcade. I explained to the police officers that I was really on my way to Chateaubelair. They allowed us to go through and everything went peacefully on.

The government continued to be adamant against dialogue despite the pleas of the Christian Council. A letter from the Minister of Education to the Council stated, “I have been directed by Cabinet to inform you that it notes the concern of the Christian Council over the Teachers’ strike. However, a precondition of dialogue with the St. Vincent Union of Teachers is an early resumption of duties.

“The Christian Council will be well advised as to the correctness of this procedure.” The Premier was firm in his government’s position, “My government will carry out the mandate given to it by the people of the State under God’s guidance.” (Does this sound familiar?)

With Christmas and Christmas holidays approaching teachers realized that the pressure would have been eased and so went along with a request to mediate, which came from the Caribbean Congress of Labour that was approached to do so by the Commercial, Technical and Allied Workers’ Union.

Its two delegates, Burns Bonadie and Curtis Stuart, met with the Minister and his delegation and arrived at certain decisions. The refusal of the government to sign a joint release should have sent warning signals. The government release as noted by Burns Bonadie was not in keeping with the discussions.

After a long meeting with the CCL delegation and with pledges by them to monitor the situation and to provide support, teachers voted to go back to work as a precondition to having their outstanding issues addressed.

Promises of no dismissals and transfers were never kept. Moreover, some teachers were not paid for December. I was among those suffering that fate. For a long time after teachers were still fighting the same battle, but the experience would long live in the minds of those who participated in the events that lasted from November 3 to December 3.

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