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Teachers Solidarity Week: let the story be told

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Vincentian teachers and their union, the St Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers Union (SVGTU) are this week observing Teachers Solidarity Week, a week of activities organized annually in November in commemoration of the memorable strike staged by the union in 1975. That strike was called to try and enforce outstanding salary claims by the union and, in furtherance of them, the fundamental demand for union recognition.{{more}}

It took many years of persecution, victimisation and sacrifice before the union was able to realize its goals and become an official bargaining agent on behalf of the nation’s teachers. But even then, and now, the relationship between the SVGTU and the government has not always been smooth. In fairness to the ULP administration, many benefits have accrued to teachers, and public servants, since its accession to office in 2001. That is not to say, however, that it has been all smooth sailing, and relations between the Union and the Ministry of Education in particular, sometimes sink to far from desirable levels.

This year, as in many others, the commemoration of Teachers Solidarity Week takes place in an all-too-familiar context, that of disagreement between Government and the Union on salary negotiations. In fact, as far as the SVGTU is concerned, it is the lack of genuine negotiations over the payment of an agreed three per cent salary hike that is causing the problem. The union contends that rather than discussing the matter with it, the Prime Minister made a public announcement of what he would pay, as if the SVGTU were not a partner in negotiations.

To their credit though, the teachers are still committed to negotiations, but are rightly demanding both to be treated with respect and for reciprocation on the part of government. There is no doubt that in this “hard guava crop” time, teachers and public servants, like all working people, are very concerned about eroding living standards. Government, for its part, caught in the global economic bind, finds its options limited, but it is precisely a situation in which, if unions are asked to be patient, then they must be at all times treated with utmost respect.

Having said that, let’s get back to Solidarity Week, an annual ritual for the Teachers Union. There is no doubt that the union and teachers have come a very long way since that fateful strike of 1975. The advances, including the crucial collective bargaining right, have been phenomenal, but it has not been a straight linear advance. Teachers, therefore, have every right to commemorate November 1975 as a watershed in the union’s history.

Yet, 1975 is more than a generation ago, and the overwhelming majority of today’s teachers were not teaching then; a good number were not even born then. It is therefore important for the SVGTU to properly document the events of 1975, including the crucial lessons learnt. Too often, the lasting memory is of “Tear Gas Friday”, the brutal assault of peaceful teachers by the police, acting under political instructions.

But the teachers’ strike and the struggle for recognition were much more than the events of November 14, 1975. That struggle took place in a highly politicised context which has continued to plague SVGTU/Government relations ever since, with all sorts of persons seeking to egg on the teachers to suit their own political agenda. If there has been one area of neglect on the part of the union over these years, it is the failure to pay sufficient attention to the development of working class consciousness. It is indeed a general weakness of the entire labour movement here.

That is why the history of the 1975 struggle needs to be properly narrated. Merely expecting teachers to come out and march every November, without a proper appreciation of the union’s history, will not work. It leaves the SVGTU dependent on any pay or industrial dispute with the Government to motivate teachers to turn out to activities. That is not enough, not a solid basis for building class consciousness. The union has progressed and served teachers well in respect of professional development and in building a powerful credit union, but the third pillar, the trade union component, remains the “poor relation” in the triumvirate. This must be rectified, for how else can the union engage in actions to defend and secure the interests of teachers?

Finally, Solidarity Week has an enduring theme: “Remember November”. Taking that theme, the SVGTU can go beyond the usual praises of the 1975 leadership and pay tribute to many ordinary teachers, who, at great sacrifice, made herculean contributions towards sustaining the 1975 struggle. Many have left, either of their own volition or by being persecuted and hounded out of the profession. Others have retired and there are still a few around, but their role must be extolled, their story told.

It is not just Mike Browne and Yvonne Francis-Gibson, later to become Ministers of Government, who were victims of police terror and dragged before the court. In all, 41 teachers were arrested for daring to exercise their rights. Many of them are today prominent citizens who have played their part in building a post-colonial St Vincent and the Grenadines. Just take a look at some of the names – Ferdinand Toney of Ferdy’s Footsteps fame; Cecil ‘Blazer’ Williams, Chairman of the Public Service Commission; Simeon Greene, Haydn Marshall, Dougie “Nose” Joseph, Cecil ‘Pa’ Jack, Robert Fitzpatrick, Victor Byron, George Bailey, Eric Andrews, Jeffrey James. Some, like Mike Questelles, Samuel Gordon, Tydel ‘TJ’ John and Tim Ottley, have migrated, while a number of female teachers preceded Yvonne Francis-Gibson in being dragged before the courts. These included a forgotten union ‘foot soldier’ Joy Creese, Katherine Johnson, Angela Brooker, Judith Hull, Barbara Defreitas and Yvadney Tyrell.

They too must be mentioned and never forgotten. Credit too must be paid to a staunch labour organiser like Caspar London, who, while not a teacher, played an invaluable role in sustaining the Union in its hour of need. The story must be told, the lessons grasped, if we are to move forward.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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