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The Teachers’ Solidarity March of November 18, 2011 – Some Issues

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I take as my point of departure the editorial of the SEARCHLIGHT of November 11, 2011. Referring to the theme of this year’s solidarity week, “Rekindling the Spirit of Our Forerunners”, the editorial states, “If the leadership of the Teachers’ Union is serious about the theme chosen for Solidarity Week, it will have to demonstrate that it possesses that spirit which drove the forerunners of 1975 to stand up for the rights of teachers and the entire working class.{{more}}
 
The sacrifices of 36 years must not be in vain.” This is very sound advice, and is very pertinent. Again, the apathy and/or divisions within the Union were manifested again, first with the small attendance of teachers and the attitude of a number of teachers. The Union seemed to have been sending out wrong signals with talk of others hijacking the march and the sending out whether consciously or not of sounds that appeared to be suggesting that the march was for teachers and teachers alone. Well, it is a strange thing for any union not to be welcoming support from the public. Even the most powerful unions everywhere welcome public support and are aware that they are unlikely to achieve their objectives without the support of the public. If that comment was meant to have been directed at supporters of the NDP, I saw no evidence that the party was attempting to do that.
 
In any event, one of the issues on the table was that of the reinstatement of the three teachers who had resigned to contest the last elections but have not been rehired, contrary to the Union’s Collective Agreement. Since the teachers contested under the banner of the NDP, supporters of that party had every right to express solidarity with the plight of the three teachers. But there was a lot of nonsense going on. One person, I understood, claimed that she was not going to march if I participated. I am really sorry for that individual because I was deeply involved in the Strike of 1975 and suffered because of that. I have every right to be involved in any activity that was commemorating those dread events of 36 years ago. So I am sorry if my presence, for whatever reason, disturbed her.
 
There was also another problem where despite the talk of not having the march politicised, the front vehicle was one which had a sticker marked “I am Labour.” This was in fact very funny, and one wondered if it was not deliberately done. In any event, after protests by some persons, the sign or signs were concealed. I agree with the call of the President not to allow teachers to become bound by political constraints.
 
His call to put all politics aside and deal with the issue as it comes would on the other hand only make sense if he interprets politics narrowly to mean partisan politics. In any event, the refusal to reinstate the teaches is pure political vindictiveness. If the country is serious about education and really wants to have an ‘education revolution’, then it should insist and fight to get those experienced teachers back into the classroom. I know that the absence of Elvis Daniel from teaching the Community College students who were taking Maths for the Level 1 UWI St. Augustine Programme led to a marked decline in the grades for the year.

Clarke has to be careful with his message to teachers, asking them to go back to their schools and to start mobilizing “because when you are called, we want you to be ready.” It doesn’t happen like that. Serious work has to be done in the Union to lift their Trade Union consciousness and to realise that they might one day be affected and will welcome the support of the union and of the public. Teachers have to realise that when one teacher is touched, regardless of his political colouration, that all teachers are touched because he/she just might be next. I need at this point to remind readers of Martin Niemoeller’s poem: “In Germany they first came for the communists and I did not speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
 
Then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t speak up because I was a protestant. Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.” This is something we need to constantly keep before us because tomorrow it might be me or you and no one will be left to speak up. I was highly amused by Dr. Gonsalves’ comment as reported in the Press, that article 16 of the 2005 Collective Agreement was aspirational because there was the expectation that changes would have been made to this country’s constitution. He seemed to have gone further and suggested that everyone knew it was put there as something to which they should work.
 
This puts a different spin on what is a Collective Agreement. Furthermore ,one is left to ask which other articles in the Agreement were part of that ‘aspirational vision’. I am not sure, too, how many persons knew before 2005 that there was going to be an attempt to change the constitution and that at least one article in the Agreement could only have been carried out if the efforts to change the constitution succeeded.

Some of the comments made last Friday clearly indicated that there is deep political division within the union. Well, nothing is new here because where else in the country isn’t there deep political division? Members of our trade unions still have to reach the stage of trade union consciousness where they are prepared to acknowledge the rights of others to support political parties of their choice but to be prepared to struggle as one body for the aims of the union.
 
The apathy among workers in this country will, if you do not know otherwise, convince you that they are satisfied with their condition. The Teachers who came out in full support of the 1975 Strike would obviously have been supporters of different political parties, but they found it necessary to join others to fight for certain rights. The working class everywhere is living under deteriorating conditions, and some are fighting back. In SVG, we seem to have lost the art of struggle and are prepared to sit back and hope that everything we desire will come to us through political patronage.

I wonder how many of our teachers have reflected on the theme of this year’s solidarity march. They are the beneficiaries of the struggle of teachers in 1975, but the banner is in their hands and they have to carry it further. They must realise that nothing is achieved without struggle.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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