Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Cause Without a Rebel

After more than a hundred days of union action, the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) on Friday called off their strike. The decision was made after a series of meetings with Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa, who was appointed as a special envoy by the President, his brother Mahinda.
Prior to that, talks between FUTA and the Minister of Higher Education S.B. Dissanayake had come to an impasse. While Minister Rajapaksa made the announcement that FUTA will be calling off the trade union action, Dissanayake sat next to him at a press briefing flanked by his Ministry Secretary, Dr. Sunil Jayantha Nawarathna.
Both of them – who also happen to be ardent proponents of private sector involvement in the education sector – have stood defiant in front of the massive-scale social movement that FUTA’s union action escalated to.
FUTA had also, so far, been a strong union voice, managing to garner so much public support that their movement shifted from one calling for higher pay, to one calling for higher state-sector spending on the education sector.
FUTA’s spokesperson Dr. Mahim Mendis, its Chairman Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri and its Vice-Chairman Ven. Dambara Amila Thero, stood smiling at a media briefing held on Friday. During the media briefing held on Thursday, Minister Dissanayake sat looking defeated. The only one who could claim victory was the Minister of Economic Affairs.
FUTA says it has a significant amount of work to do. There are GCE Advanced Level examination papers to correct, three months academic activities to catch up, and they also have to ready themselves to take in a new batch of university entrants.
They also have to prove the non-believers wrong. FUTA made the call for the government spending on education – the now near-sacred number of 6% – their poster child during the campaign. Their newest critics – and there are many – now blame the FUTA for using 6% as a pretext for getting higher pay. Many feel let down. The 12,000-strong group on the social networking site facebook carries comments by students who say that they feel betrayed.
“There is nothing wrong in raising social issues while in the middle of union action,” says Devasiri.
Devasiri, Mendis and Amila Thero remain non-committal about whether there was a distinction between the two. They say that the call for higher pay was driven through union action, and that the call for increased spending was a “struggle” – a struggle that they pledge to continue. Devasiri also says that there are many victories that have been scored. Judging by the comments left by some members of the facebook group, the distinction – if there was one – was blurred.
When FUTA urged the public to support them, the rhetoric was different. “Increase allocation for all sectors of education to reach 6% of the GDP on education in times to come. If we can achieve this, we would be able to strengthen the entire educational sector and enhance quality of delivery to very great heights,” the body said in one of their publicity pamphlets.
No headway has been made on the 6%, but Devasiri says however that FUTA was victorious in their demands.
The victories he refers to are in the form of two letters that the union received from the government, neither of which are substantially committal in any way. They do talk about salary hikes, but Minister Rajapaksa on Thursday said that the figure of 6% is not what the government will be working with: “we give a lot of emphasis on education, and we will spend on it as we see fit,” he says.
Devasiri sees the responsibility as being shared. He, along with Amila Thero, says that they will take forward the struggle for 6% of the GDP to be spent on education sector. They also say that expecting a result over the issue following trade union action is impractical.
FUTA gathered signatures, walked to Colombo from several parts across the island, grew as a social movement that dominated the media – and lives – of the mass public of the country. They united the trade unions.
A strong backer for FUTA was K.D. Lal Kantha, veteran union activist and strongman of the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.
Lal Kantha says that the trade union action was for the salary issues, and that increased government expenditure on education has to be a continuing struggle.
For some at FUTA, this includes wearing the T-shirt with 6% on it to university once a week and wearing a black armband on the other days.
Lal Kantha – along with everyone who supported the movement – commended that the academics were on strike without pay. Now though, they will receive the due salaries as well for the past three months. Their demands have however, fallen short like the signature campaign did.
The question in the minds of many still stands: did FUTA use 6% as a pretext for higher pay? “It’s a subjective question,” says Devasiri: “you can say yes or no.”

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