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Teachers seeking to enforce collective bargaining rights

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Fri, Nov 11. 2011

The St. Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers Union will next week commemorate Teachers Solidarity Week marking the 36th anniversary of the Union’s historic strike of 1975.{{more}} That strike is best remembered for the assault by the police on the peaceful teachers march on November 14, 1975, dousing the nation’s capital with tear gas and arresting the leadership of the union. That stench of tear gas has lasted figuratively for the three decades plus, and today, even those who had not been born when that disgraceful attack was launched, continue to make reference to it.

This year’s activities will be held under the theme “Rekindling the spirit of our Forerunners”. That spirit was manifested most strikingly by the determination shown by the class of 1975 to persist in their just demands, despite the hostility of the government. It took a lot of courage in those days for teachers to take industrial action and those forerunners of today’s generation endured a great deal of sacrifice, personally and professionally, to pursue their aims.

Central to the demands of the teachers were the claims for formal recognition of the Union as the bargaining body for the nation’s teachers and hence the right to engage in collective bargaining with their employer, the Government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. That right was denied by the then government, not just to teachers, but to other public sector workers as well, and this violation of an internationally recognised right was, not surprisingly, being copied by private sector employers.

Thus, in striking for the right to collective bargaining rights, the teachers Union of 1975 was carrying the fight for all of the nation’s workers. That won the teachers a great deal of support from the working class, most of whom were still unorganised and lacking the means to legitimately enforce their claims. It took more than a quarter century before teachers could savour the benefits of that struggle and sacrifice and exercise the right to negotiate a collective agreement.

The signing of the first collective agreement in 2005 was an historic milestone but it has not meant the end of the struggle. Indeed, earlier this week, the Union’s president Ronald Clarke, told the media of the many frustrations of the teachers in the collective bargaining process. Some aspects of the agreement have not yet been implemented and the agreement itself should already have been re-negotiated twice more. The patience of the teachers is fast running out, said the President and they can no longer put up with this state of affairs.

These are hard times, for governments and workers alike, not only in St. Vincent and the Grenadines but virtually all over the world. The global economic crisis has severely restricted elbow room for governments, but it is even harder on workers. It must therefore not be used as any excuse to deny the legitimate rights of workers and the spirit of dialogue and sensible compromise must be invoked. 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. The sacrifices of 36 years ago must not be in vain.

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