Monday, September 3, 2012
From chalkboards to picket lines:The journey of a trade union
By Shamala Kumar
The university system in Sri Lanka is at a standstill. The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA), the umbrella body of 43 university teachers’ trade unions, is attempting to negotiate with a government that sees even the acknowledgement of FUTA’s position as a threat to its power and control. A trade union action that began a year ago as a simple demand for salaries goes viral as school teachers, students, and political parties examine the trajectory of the system of education in the country - a trajectory that can spell nothing but disaster - if left unchecked. While FUTA’s chief concern is education, the movement it has spurred promises to nurture the fragile state of democracy in Sri Lanka. It does so through a sustained demand for change in educational policy, in spite of, or perhaps because of, a membership that is refreshingly dispersed across party lines and a leadership with limited centralised power. With an agenda that has found resonance with the broader public, FUTA’s ongoing trade union action has opened a discussion that brings hope for a new direction in public policy driven by democratic principles rather than patronage and politicking.
FUTA’s efforts began some time ago with concerns over salary. A faltering and protracted process of negotiation had yielded little in preceding years. With the war over in 2009, there was hope that the government would be at last ready to look into the grievances of university lecturers. Following a token strike in September 2010, the FUTA leadership assured its members that university teachers’ salaries would be increased in the next budget. However, the budget for 2011 showed no such indication. Feeling betrayed by their leadership, FUTA’s member unions simultaneously elected new executive committees to their respective unions. These new committees resulted in new representatives and a new leadership at FUTA, a leadership that was to prove stronger and more resilient than its predecessors. It was this group that galvanised an already frustrated membership to take trade union action against the government’s neglect of their salary demands.
In the wake of these events, actions by the government aggravated the situation. Instead of increasing salaries, the government added insult to injury by introducing a scheme that would give university lecturers research grants. It was ill thought out and appeared developed by those unfamiliar with the costs and processes of research. This scheme was presented as a solution to the low research output from universities. Implicit was that the problems of the faltering university system were due to academics and their lethargy. The scheme ignored the problems of attracting strong applicants with the existing salary structure, the steady depletion of academics and the drained resources for teaching and research. It ignored the lack of qualified support staff, a manifestation of continued political interference in the recruitment of these staff categories. Broadly, it failed to acknowledge the problems, far greater than individual motivation, that resulted in a weakened university system.
At this juncture of the trade union action, these larger issues remained peripheral to the chief concern of salaries. However, as the trade union action continued for three months, these issues were to surface and to have more prominence in discussions both within and outside the universities.
At the onset, the response of the Government and reactions from the public to the trade union action were varied. The first public forum, held in Kandy, drew large crowds. This was at a time when there was very limited space to criticise the government. The war had ended with a deafening silence save from euphoric quarters celebrating the war victory. How would the public and the government react? A half hour before the event, there were just two people in the auditorium. ‘I remember seeing them and feeling deflated,’ said one organiser. An hour later, however, there was hardly any standing room. The speakers, while discussing salaries, drew on broader issues to make their case. The energy at the event surprised even the organisers. It was while this event was in session that the government finally engaged with FUTA by calling them for a hurriedly held meeting in Colombo.
This forum was the beginning of a larger public engagement. Public events were organised by member unions across the island. A march from the University of Ruhuna, was a first for university teachers and the march in Jaffna, was the first public protest in post-war Jaffna. At each event, the role and responsibility of universities in education were addressed, partly compelled to by those outside FUTA who accused the academic community of silence on political issues in the recent past, especially during the war, and of backing a self-interested agenda. Such criticism was also fueled by the government that used the media to portray FUTA’s demand for higher salaries as selfish.
The nature of the government’s response also suggested that the issues FUTA grappled with were deeper than anticipated. Circumventing established procedures, hurried circulars were dispatched to disrupt the trade union action. Students, later found to have connections with the government, filed legal action through a legal system that was perceived to be controlled by the government. The government’s position towards the protest respected neither the law nor the very bodies they had established to coordinate and monitor universities.
Three months later, the trade union action was suspended abruptly with vague and unwritten promises. A dissatisfied general membership of FUTA, directed their anger to the negotiation team which was criticised for making decisions unilaterally without consultation with its membership. There was no sense of closure or accomplishment because there was very little in terms of a tangible outcome. However, the events of 2011 left academics changed. They were more critically aware of their role and responsibility towards public education. Links created across universities at the time would remain strong in the months to come. In retrospect, it was perhaps the abrupt end and the residual energy from 2011 that stimulated the debates and discussions which opened the space for the resumption of trade union activity in the form of a full blown strike in July 2012.
In the period that followed the suspension of the initial trade union action, the government’s general disregard for law and procedure became the focus of attention when several controversial steps were taken by the Ministry of Higher Education. The Ministry attempted to introduce a University Reforms Bill that would centralise the powers of universities to the Minister of Higher Education. The Bill would override bodies of academics, such as university faculties, senates and the University Grants Commission, in making decisions. The Ministry usurped the universities’ authority and signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) that would allow CIMA classes to be held on campuses. A private security firm, consisting of retired military staff and owned by powerful government officials, was hired to provide security services to the entire university system at three times the cost of its predecessors. Prospective university students were essentially forced to complete ill-conceived ‘leadership’ training at military camps. Appointments of vice chancellors and members of university councils were made to satisfy the whims of politicians with seemingly little consideration for the welfare of the universities. These steps overrode university autonomy, which is protected by law. When seeking means of curtailing these initiatives, universities and the trade union found that there were none.
These disturbing events prompted concerned groups of academics, such as University Teachers for Democracy and Dialogue, and representatives of FUTA to meet with other trade unions and civil society organisations. These networks contributed significantly to the success of subsequent efforts of FUTA.
When 2012 arrived, the promised salary demands remained unmet. FUTA’s letters to the Ministry went unanswered. Ministerial interference with university procedures continued to jar the academics, as universities experienced cuts in funding and resources. Importantly, notification sent in April by FUTA that in July it would resume its trade union action was ignored. After much debate and discussion within its membership, FUTA went on Strike on July 4, 2012. Because of the member unions’ dissatisfaction with the ending of the previous trade union action, FUTA agreed that all decisions of the negotiating team would need to be first ratified and sanctioned by its member unions. In this way, the power of FUTA became even less centralised.
Unsurprisingly, the government’s response to the full-blown strike was one of disdain and nonchalance. Once again, they attempted to shame and ridicule the academics. In the first month, they did little beyond hold a few superficial meetings to address the issues put forward. They dragged their feet and generally closed their eyes to FUTA and its demands.
Today, as FUTA completes two months of striking, the trade union action itself has transformed into something that looks very different from anything university teachers in Sri Lanka have engaged with in the past. FUTA saw that the issues of education would be addressed only if the message came loud and clear. For any impact, the call for change had to come from the broader public. Therefore, FUTA’s efforts from the outset were to mobilise the public and other civil society groups to address issues in education.
Aware of the insidious control that the government has over the, FUTA and its representative unions decided to go directly to the grassroots. The all-island signature campaign has collected over 200,000 signatures so far. Public meetings were held across provinces and dialogue with other interest groups was initiated. Attempts were made to get a large number of political parties onboard. Meetings were held with trade unions and civil society organisations.
In the process of engaging the public, the parallels between higher education, education and other sectors became evident. The destitute nature of the primary and secondary schooling system, the politicisation of funding to schools, and the closure of schools that were catering to the most disadvantaged became apparent. Events in the health sector, including cuts in health spending, privatisation of healthcare, and the politicisation of medical institutions seemed comparable to those in the education sector. Despite increased investment in the transport sector with new roads and highways and the increase in luxury services, the deteriorating quality of the public transport system became clear. Even within the corporate sector, interference by political appointees was common, with two successive Securities Exchange Commissioners handing in their resignation within the last year.
At the crux of it all are concerns of democracy, transparency, and the general disregard of the public good. While the trade union action continues, the government continues to spout half truths, lies and more lies. It is unclear where this will end. Will the government be able to crush this movement? By closing the universities, the government has demonstrated its will to explore all avenues to do so.
Having said that, however, FUTA seems to have already won. FUTA has succeeded in convincing and building the support of the larger population. Last week, a pledge to work together to influence education policy reforms was made by over forty trade unions and other civil society organisations. The statements made by political parties across the board and other allies demonstrate that these are not issues that can be ignored by governments in the years to come. The tremendous success of the rally last week with the participation of varied segments of society reflects the pulse of system. Perhaps most encouraging is the general awareness that the problems of education are symptomatic of the widening fissures in our social system and the realisation that we need change. This change, as demonstrated by the recent events around the FUTA trade union action, can only come about if there is widespread support from the larger population, an undeniable and unrelenting force.
Shamala Kumar is a member of the Peradeniya University Agriculture Teachers’ Association (PUATA, a member union of FUTA) and University Teachers for Democracy and Dialogue (UT4DD).