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Teachers Union – The legacy of 1975

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Before I embark on the subject matter, it would be remiss of me if I do not say heartfelt thanks to all those who contributed in one way or another to my success in winning the International Achievement Award of the prestigious British newspaper, the GUARDIAN (formerly Manchester Guardian).{{more}} To have won in a free, online vote, from four competitors drawn from countries (Thailand, Kenya, Pakistan and Senegal) with a combined population of 190 million, in stark contrast to our own 110,000 here at home and perhaps a similar amount (including descendants) in the diaspora, represents, for me, a major triumph for our nation as a whole. I sincerely thank all those who cast a ballot, congratulated me and wished me all the best. I am also appreciative of the opportunity provided through the efforts of the government and the telecommunications firms operating here to extend access to the internet, permitting humble folk to be able to vote online.

Now, to matters of the day. The Teachers Union commemorated the 36th anniversary of its historic strike of 1975 and the unforgettable assault on innocent citizens on ‘Tear Gas Friday, November 14 of that year, with its annual march and rally. From reports I have read, it appears that matters pertaining to a new collective agreement, the “aspirational” and “constitutional” aspects of the current agreement and the vexed issue of the non-reinstatement of three teachers who resigned to contest the 2010 general elections, dominated the proceedings.

It is a real pity that the government has allowed such a course of events to run in such a direction. The time and effort being expended on both sides, (on all sides in fact, since both the political opposition and ordinary citizens are having their say as well), are simply unnecessary and counter-productive. This should never have been allowed to become a major issue, detracting from the pressing issues confronting our people in our quest for national development. One detects within ruling party circles, a sort of hardening of positions against political opponents, justified by what they consider to be unfair attacks on PM Gonsalves and the government, and the refusal of the Opposition to play a constructive role in the development process. It accounts for sentiments akin to “pastor say, christen your own pickney fus”. While this might resound among the troops, it is a sad departure from the commitment to justness and fairness. Any time the ULP goes down this road, it abdicates its claim to the moral high road. It cannot be like what it accused the NDP of having been; it must be different and lead by moral example.

For its part, the Teachers Union, while upholding the rights of its members, cannot lose sight of the wider picture. There will be issues, the reinstatement being among them, when Government and Union will not see eye to eye. Yet, there is no denying that this government has been far more pro-union than any of its predecessors. The record speaks for itself and relations between both can never ignore this fact. At the same time, this does not give the government a ‘carte blanche’ to do as it likes or to take teachers and their union for granted. It cannot expect the union to abandon its members and their interests.

One gets the impression though, that there is need for sober introspection and reflection on both sides. In regard to the Teachers Union, it is clear that the militancy of some opposed to the government, within the union and external to it, is placing pressure on the leadership to the extent that the role of the union in educational and national development is being lost. Currently, there is much public discussion on the airwaves on critical matters such as parenting, education, economic and social development. The Teachers Union, and the Public Service Union, should, by virtue of their nature, be the intellectual leaders of the working people. They ought to be stimulating and influencing national dialogue in such areas. Both have fallen short in this regard.

That is not to say that basic trade union issues and bargaining must be set aside. No, both have a place on the agenda. In particular, the Teachers Union needs to re-examine its proud history of leadership of the working people and to reflect how much it has deviated from its legacy. It must seek to rediscover its mantle and in its struggles seek to defend not only the direct interests of its members, but to uplift the working people as a whole. Perhaps a revisiting of some conclusions from the 1975 strike, published in the FREEDOM newspaper of December 12, 1975, might help to refreshen and rejuvenate:

“The teachers’ strike has added new dimension to trade unionism. There is an upsurge in interest of teachers and the public in union matters and the struggle of the exploited working class. Teachers are now convinced that they are workers, (although in a slightly more privileged position than others. There has been a rise in trade union consciousness among the ranks of teachers…

“The strike has established the SVUT in the books of trade union struggles in the Caribbean…. Over the last four and a half weeks, strong ties were forged between the SVUT and the community…. As a result of the contact between the SVUT and the community, there has been increased respect for teachers….. Following the example of the teachers, students have begun to agitate….The crisis has in fact given birth to a national student body characterized by the militancy shown by the teachers….

“Teachers have every reason to be proud and walk tall. Their heroic actions have brought results. The future will definitely bring more for teachers and they will not rest until their mission is accomplished. That mission must not be restricted to the outstanding issues between union and Government. It must be the nobler and broader struggle of the working class.”

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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