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Teachers, remember the unsung heroes too!

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Originally, I had planned to follow up on the CCJ issue in today’s column, but as I reflect, at the time of writing, Wednesday, November 14, we are marking the 43rd anniversary of what will unfortunately be remembered as “Tear Gas Day”, the day that peaceful demonstrating teachers, students and pupils were callously tear-gassed either on the orders or at least the approval of the then Labour administration. How could I then ignore it, for if the opponents of the CCJ can argue that the CCJ “can wait”, it is certainly not unreasonable to give the 1975 developments our priority for this week?

Those developments, for which the November 14 incident has been forever etched in our history, revolved around the historic strike by the nation’s teachers, led by the Teachers’ Union, which began on Monday, November 3. This was no sudden overnight strike, it came in the wake of a protracted conflict between the government of the day and the Teachers Union.

That conflict was not the only industrial relations one of the time, and centred on the refusal of the government to even discuss some fundamental demands of the teachers. Among these were, official recognition of the Union as the bargaining agent for teachers and engaging in negotiations for a collective agreement; improving working conditions for teachers and the shocking state of the nation’s schools; payment of the $750 backpay, promised by the previous government which the then administration had pledged to honour; salary revision for teachers; and, finally, repeal of the draconian Public Service Act which effectively curtailed fundamental political rights and freedoms of public servants and teachers.

That was the background which led to that unforgettable strike and it is to the credit of the Teachers Union that, not only has it instituted Teachers Solidarity Week, but has kept it alive every year for more than four decades. No other Union, nor indeed any other civil society organisation that I can readily think of, has been able to sustain such consistency. The Union, whatever its shortcomings, can feel justly proud of keeping the memories alive and in honouring the pioneers whose sacrifices brought about today’s benefits, often taken for granted.

It is crucial though that the Teachers Union seeks to officially document this part of its history, for history can very easily be distorted and can become “his” story, the version of who tells it, or twists it. In particular, while fittingly paying tributes to its leaders over the years, as in the “Wall of Fame”, honouring its Presidents, it is important that many unsung heroes and “sheroes” are not forgotten.

The teachers’ struggles of 1975 were not based only on the actions of its leaders, President Mike Browne, Vice-President, the late Yvonne Francis-Gibson among them, many rank-and-file teachers sustained the effort, day-in and day-out. It is good to note the Union’s recognition of the 10 teachers arrested on “Tear Gas Day”, but 31 others were arrested one week before at the Ministry of Education and dragged before the courts. They too must not be forgotten. Indeed, two of the ten arrested on November 14, Timothy Ottley and Jemmot Campbell, were themselves among the first batch apprehended by police.

During the strike, on a day-to-day basis, there were teachers who “manned’ the union office, providing the logistic and moral support which sustained the strike and kept morale high. Teachers like Samuel “Kala” Gordon, Tydel John, Duggie ‘Nose’ Joseph, Victor ‘Mwata’ Byron, Robbie Fitzpatrick, Ferdinand Toney, Simeon Greene, Eric Andrews, plus leading teacher/dramatists such as ‘Blazer’ Williams, Jeff James and Mike Questelles, all played valuable support roles. The names are too much to mention here.

A significant role in the teachers struggle has always been played by female teachers. In 1975, not only was outstanding leadership given by Yvonne Francis-Gibson and the General Secretary, Joye Browne, nine of the 31 teachers arrested at the Ministry of Education were women, names well associated with teaching, but less known for their sacrifice and union-building efforts – Ann Williams, Gloria John, Sylvia King, Joy Creese, Barbara DeFreitas, Katherine Johnson, Judith Hull, Yvadney Tyrell and Angela Brooker. They too must not be forgotten.

The 1975 teachers strike had many positive political repercussions. Politicians seized on its aftermath to launch their parties, the NDP one month after, and Carlyle Dougan’s short-lived PUC within a year, all building on the groundswell provided by the teachers. But it was the extra-parliamentary group YULIMO which provided most support during and after the strike. In this, I would like to appeal to the leadership of the Union to give recognition to the support, clarity, leadership and trade union guidance provided by the late Caspar London, one of our country’s leading trade unionists who has never been given the recognition he so richly deserved. Do your research, speak to the active participants and make your own conclusions.
Full respect and tribute to the SVGTU and best wishes for the future!

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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