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As teachers prepare to march- Some reflections on November 1975

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Later today, members of the St.Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers Union will hold their annual march which will allow them to reflect on that day in 1975, November 14, when the State and its security forces seemed to have gone mad and unleashed ‘tear gas’ on a peaceful march by workers who were simply demanding what they considered their rights.{{more}} The onslaught affected not only teachers, but students and members of the public who were standing at the side of the road looking at the proceedings. It will be interesting to see the turnout today since in recent years the response of teachers was quite shameful. The poor response of teachers fitted in with the apathy that appeared to have taken hold of the country. This I suspect is changing, and one expects to see in attendance some of those teachers who were part of the 1975 struggle and also sympathetic members of the public. Let us always remember that the Teachers’ strike that lasted from November 3 to December 3 had strong support from some members of the public. One recalls the spontaneous motorcade around Kingstown by taxi drivers in support of the striking teachers.

The 1970s were different times. The black power movement, the Sir George Williams University crisis that involved a number of Caribbean people, including some from St.Vincent, and the reaction in the Caribbean to the events in Jamaica associated with the banning of Walter Rodney, a lecturer at UWI, Mona, appeared to have stimulated the consciousness, especially of young people, in the region. 1975 was also a difficult year, with government arguing that it could not afford to pay the $750 back pay commitment that the ruling Labour party had promised to meet. I cannot remember the details surrounding the situation where one evening nurses at the Nurses hostel had nothing for supper and were forced to march to the home of the Minister of Health, who at first offered them sweet drinks and ice cream which they refused, later accepted bread and beef but refused the invitation to have it at the Minister’s home. Conditions at the hospital were appalling, and then there was the treatment meted out to Dr. Cyrus who was prevented from leaving the country on holidays, a fire truck having been sent to block the exit from the ramp leading to the runaway. And this was despite the arrangements he had made to have a Doctor from Grenada replace him for the period of his leave.

The Teachers’ Union under new leadership had begun to reorganise and professionalise its body. Although the Secondary School Teachers had their own union, which was in any case not an active body, a meeting was called at the Richmond Hill school for secondary and primary school teachers to discuss working conditions. One of the decisions reached was to approach government to settle outstanding issues. But the major discontent came from the Nurses and Civil Servants,( the nurses were part of the Civil Service Union), being concerned about the Dr.Cyrus issue and the dreadful conditions pertaining at the hospital. Some nurses and hospital workers were actually charged for participating in an illegal march. In response to an invitation, to attend a General Meeting of the Teachers Union that was held at the Anglican School on September 13, a number of nurses joined the teachers in an effort to discuss the struggles of both groups. A decision to march up the Bay Street to the hospital led to charges against teachers and nurses and prompted a letter from the Teachers’ Union to government about a meeting which they suggested should be held on October 8. They indicated that if that date and the ten o’ clock time they suggested were not convenient that they should indicate their preferences.

The absence of a response by October 7 led to the decision of teachers to boycott the Statehood celebrations and to their criticism of government holding elaborate celebrations at a time when they claimed they could not meet the basic demands of workers. The relationship between Teachers and government had become bitter following the collapse of the Summer programme done with support from the Canadian Federation of Teachers. A statement by the Teachers’ President prompted a decision by the Minister to order the discontinuation of the Trade Union course which was part of the Summer Schedule. Following government’s failure to respond to the call for dialogue by the Teachers, a letter was sent indicating the intention of the Union to proceed on strike on November 3. The issues had to do with a call for better working conditions, the long overdue $750 back pay, a salary revision, the repeal of the 1971 Public Service Act and demands for a Collective Agreement. The atmosphere became poisoned prior to the march of Friday, November 4, when on the Thursday 31 Teachers were arrested at the Ministry where they had ‘camped out’ waiting on the arrival of the Minister with whom they wanted to speak. The arrival in the Ministry of a Police Bus and the voice of the Inspector (as reported by one of the Teachers) asking that they “lock up every bitching one of them” led to them being taken to the Police Barracks where they were put into the cells for one hour before being released on bail. Late that afternoon the teachers were informed by the Commissioner that the march that had been scheduled for the next day, Friday, was prohibited. The Teachers felt that their march was legal and decided to go ahead as scheduled. On Friday, things were moving along as was scheduled until the marchers were stopped in front of the Police Barracks, and without warning tear gas was unleashed on the crowd and on persons in the vicinity. The Truck with the tear gas then moved on to the Back Street where the gas was randomly sprayed around as if it was a Guy Fawkes celebration.

Space does not allow me to go into details about the strike, but I need to mention that 18 teachers were dismissed and a number of others transferred. One of the good things to have come out of the Strike, however, was the decision to establish the Credit Union which today provides mammoth service to teachers. The Teachers’ Union really needs to document the details of what happened during that year. It is an important part of their history.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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