Strategy and Analysis to Defend and Transform Public Education

International Labor Action for Rank and File Teachers: In the Fight for Free Public Education — Beware the Union “Leadership”: A.S. Read

This is a recent article from our newest newsletter analyzing the OEA contract struggle.  We post it here so you can access the citations and hyperlinks.  Here, A.S. Read brings the international perspective by taking us to Sri Lanka and Namibia where, recently, some very militant teacher strikes have taken place.  Each points out the potential power of teachers when united but also the dangers of being sold out by bureaucratized union leadership.

Sri Lankan teachers on strike demanding an increase of GDP spending on education to 6%.

Sri Lankan teachers on strike demanding an increase of spending on education to 6% of GDP.

International Labor Action for Rank and File Teachers: In the Fight for Free Public Education — Beware the Union “Leadership”

By A.S. Read

In the United States and countries all over the world there still remains an institution that links people towards a common goal. This goal, literacy,  is entirely necessary for all working people to navigate the complex and increasingly oppressive nature of “civilized” society (aka Capitalist Society). There are many definitions of what literacy entails (most rates are based on the ability to read and write at a specified age), overall it is estimated that the worldwide literacy rate is around 80%. 1  I would argue the institution responsible, for what is arguably an impressive percentage, is free public education. Yet, assaults on this institution are taking place in countries all over the world. As these attacks get more and more aggressive, rank and file teachers continue to fight back and prevent further losses to collective bargaining rights, despite the tendency of capitulation and self-interest from union bureaucrats.

This article will highlight two recent labor struggles where teachers courageously went on strike in response to the continuing global assault on public education manifesting in their regional schools. University teachers in Sri Lanka went on a three month strike 2 and K-12 teachers in Namibia went out on a wildcat strike that lasted two weeks 3. Both actions were bittersweet considering in each country it was the agency of the teachers that drove the strikes; however, it was the treachery of the union bureaucrats (ie. collaboration with the state) “representing” the teachers that ended the actions with minimal or no concrete gains.  This article also provides context for this labor union sabotage and ideas for teachers to push the struggle forward.

“Sri Lanka’s education system, particularly the higher-education system, our great socialist dream, is perhaps one of the very few things we got right – at least to some extent. It remains a fact of pride for us that any student in Sri Lanka who qualifies for University entrance can attend university and receive higher-education of a very good quality, regardless of their socio-economic background.”  4

In response to the Sri Lankan government’s attempt to eradicate this “great socialist dream” — 4,000 teachers from 14 Sri Lankan public universities began a strike on July 4th of 2012. The lecturers demanded a 20% wage increase and an overall increase in government spending on education to 6% of Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product (GDP).  3  Other issues the university teachers feel must be addressed are the, “severe political interference and oppression taking place at public universities countrywide.” According to a Sri Lankan citizen’s blog, “They [universities] are no longer places where one can teach and learn freedom of thought.” 4  The current government, often accused of being soft on human rights violations, is also implementing a new leadership training program – making it compulsory for every batch of university entrants to undergo a militarized training program that’s meant to instill ‘discipline’ and ‘values’ in them. These training programs are carried out by the Ministry of Defense, and the content of these temporary military camps have been highly controversial.” 4  This strike, despite a major sell-out by the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) was inspiring in its depth, perseverance and commitment to fight the Sri Lankan Government’s ruthless austerity agenda.

Sri Lanka's educational spending compared to GDP.

Sri Lanka’s educational spending compared to GDP.

“you cannot call something illegal if it is supported by majority” -Namibian teacher

In the Khomas region of Namibia, public school teachers went out on a wildcat strike that began November 1st and lasted over two weeks. This action spread to most urban centers throughout the country. The strike, no doubt inspired by the militancy of striking Marikana platinum miners in neighboring South Africa, prompted widespread support from other public sector workers, and was even joined by nurses in some regions. The teachers urged parents to rally with them if they were interested in the education of their children. 5   The teachers demanded a 40% wage increase and were extremely frustrated at the slow pace of the negotiations between the Namibia National Teachers Union (Nantu) and the Education Ministry. Teachers also wanted higher housing and transport allowances as well as a tax-free 13th cheque (a 13th cheque is similar to a bonus — paid out at the end of each year). 5 The strikes had a high level of militancy with daily marches and rallies at the Ministry of Education offices as well as the High Courts in Windhoek, the Namibian capital. “In the morning, we meet here (Ministry of Education headquarters), we mobilize ourselves and we march to the court. I don’t want us to lose focus. We are here for a strike and if tomorrow at court they tell us to go back to school, we will not go back until we see money in our bank accounts.” 6   Although this militancy was widespread, these wildcats fizzled – based largely on the nature of collaboration between Nantu, the union allegedly representing the teachers and the Namibian Ministry of Education, which immediately ruled the strike illegal.
For teachers interested in the defense and transformation of public education we can look to these two strikes for inspiration. Yet, we must also learn valuable lessons to prepare for the battles looming on the horizon. In these cases, the public school teachers in Sri Lanka and Namibia were either sold out by their union (FUTA) or utterly neglected and abandoned by the self-interested “leadership” of the teachers union (Nantu).

1) It’s important to know as much as possible about the union leaders bargaining on “our” behalf and identify any individuals with careerist and/or political ambitions .

In Sri Lanka, FUTA’s president, Nirmal Dewasiri, is the brother of Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapakse. Considering this, it should come as no surprise that the three month strike ended with no concrete gains and only “assurances” that the government will address the teachers demands within a medium term framework commencing from the 2013 budget. 3  These bureaucrats had the audacity to schedule a joint press conference to announce this “deal”; however, FUTA’s executive committee decided this might not be a great idea, and in the end held a separate press conference. The two brothers did sign a joint statement, which according to the Sri Lanka Guardian, “made it clear the union sold out its rank and file for a more central role in the island nation’s right-wing education reforms.” 3   It is very telling that the union bureaucracy didn’t even place the deal in front of its membership for a vote and held closed door meetings with cabinet ministers and education officials throughout the strike. 3   In Namibia, it was the union’s regional chairperson in Khomas, Dankie Katjiuanjo, who was suspected of secret meetings with government officials and taking bribes after attempting to convince the teachers to take an 8% pay increase and go back to work. 14  For Namibian workers in general it is fairly common practice for them to see their union “leaders” take advantage of militant actions like a wildcat strike, to springboard their own political careers in exchange for convincing the rank-and-file to return to their jobs. 15

Namibia teachers on strike.

Namibia teachers on strike.

2) We must demand that our union leadership negotiate in open meetings where teachers, parents and students can all observe and have input. On top of this, we must, as the rank and file, develop the framework to be ready at a moments notice to withdraw support from the union bureaucracy if we feel there is even a hint of capitulation or self-interest from leaders. Whether this comes in the form of a union caucus or education committee, or something more inclusive of other sectors of workers, like a workers council, it must have complete autonomy from any of the hierarchical structures designed to limit the militancy and success of strike actions.

This type of autonomous framework would have been very beneficial for the Namibian teachers in their recent wildcat strikes.  This is a quote from a letter sent to the Namibian, “Nantu is the government and the government is Nantu…An apple will never fall far from the tree”. 9   Nantu is a member union of the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW), an umbrella organization of Namibian public sector unions and a part of the ruling SWAPO Party of Namibia. With this in mind, Namibian teachers in Khomas, in response to ridiculously low wages and high teacher to student ratio, at some levels the ratio is 48 students for every teacher 8, not to mention a union in no hurry to negotiate and improve these conditions, had no choice but to engage in a wildcat strike. And their decision proved to be correct as it spread to each region of the country. The government immediately declared the strike illegal, and the secretary of the Ministry of Education, Alfred Lilukena, leaked threats to the media that N$750 would be deducted from teachers’ paychecks for every day of the strike. What is shocking is that the teachers don’t even make this amount per day. 10

Complete with threats and illegal declarations from the Namibian state, and without union support, the wildcat strikes proved hard to hold together and dissension between the teachers soon spread. Although many rank and file teachers felt the strike should continue, the majority decided to go back to work for the sake of the students. 14

Other issues emerging and affecting the chances of success was the fairly widespread labor illiteracy amongst the strikers. Some of the rank and file didn’t even know they held membership in Nantu, and many were ignorant of their own wages and salaries. This is due largely to Nantu’s failure to provide even the most basic but necessary information to it’s constituents. Also, no updates from the negotiating table were provided, as all of the bargaining with the education ministry was done in secret. 8  With these facts it is not surprising to read of Namibian teachers interested in forming their own unions, outside and autonomous from the national union (Nantu), or looking to the Teachers Union of Namibia (TUN), the rival to Nantu.

3) Our organizing must be comprehensive – inclusive of all the rank and file teachers, all school workers, and all parents and students.  This will help teachers learn their contractual rights to protect themselves in the day to day dealings with administration, and win concrete gains during battles with the state. This will also help teachers build solidarity with their fellow school workers, and students and parents — who can then help build solidarity with workers in other sectors, as so many parents of public school students are workers.

The wildcat strikes were also sabotaged with the help of complicit national media outlets. According to an article on – striking teachers booed Namibia Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) reporters as they offloaded their equipment to cover a meeting and then chanted, “NBC is anti-strike” and “Now that you got your increment you are biased in your reporting,” as the reporters returned to their media van. 5 Nantu also used the media to try to save face in what was surely embarrassing, as most of Namibia’s teachers went out on a wildcat strike without Nantu’s support. After the strike ended, a member of the union’s negotiating team sent a letter to the website, attempting to sway public opinion away from what was widespread support for the teachers militancy.  Here is a quote from that negotiator, “The negotiating team has acted upon the instructions of its membership.” 12  If this is the truth then why did the teachers engage in a wildcat strike and why did this wildcat strike receive such widespread support from the rank and file?

4) We must fight to challenge and change the mainstream media’s narrative. I won’t pretend to know the extent of the narrative being promoted in Namibia and Sri Lanka, but in the U.S., the media has been successful in convincing far too many people that teachers and our unions are to blame for the state of public schools.  Recent documentaries/movies like “Waiting For Superman” and “Won’t Back Down” serve as the tour-de-force of this false mainstream rhetoric. Therefore, we must fight to challenge this narrative while also developing ways to promote our narrative. During a strike this is even more necessary as the ruling class can and will use all means to diminish support for the strike and demoralize strikers. In Namibia it was the national media, fresh with an increase in pay, bashing the nationwide strike. In Chicago, earlier this fall, it was Rahm Emanuel labeling the CTU strike, which had near unanimous support from the rank and file and widespread support from Chicagoans, as a “strike of choice,”  effectively saying that the teachers did not need to go on strike and were doing so based on self-interest and not collective interest in education.

5) We must use new media forms (youtube, facebook, twitter, etc) to facilitate both national and international connections between teachers interested in defending and transforming public education.

These connections must be made. The global ruling class has shown no interest in providing the integral funding and resources for public schools to maintain and expand literacy rates —  it is happening all over the world, and there has been no signs of this subsiding. The only way this will stop is when they are no longer in control of our schools. Congratulations to Sri Lankan state university teachers and Namibian public school teachers on their inspiring efforts to fight this assault on public education.

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3 comments on “International Labor Action for Rank and File Teachers: In the Fight for Free Public Education — Beware the Union “Leadership”: A.S. Read

  1. Pingback: Our Newest Newsletter! « Classroom Struggle

  2. Tiyesha
    February 6, 2013

    Just like we no longer characterize “undocumented workers” as “illegal immigrants” we do not identify “enslaved africans” as “black slaves” . . . being educators, i believe you can understand why it is important to use words wisely and sensitively. Thanks.

    • ClassroomStruggle
      February 8, 2013

      Hi Tiyesha. Thank you for reading our blog and taking the time to comment. But I’m a little unclear what you’re referring to. I just reread the piece and don’t see the author referring to anyone as either “enslaved africans” or “black slaves.” If you found the piece offensive at all could you please clarify where and why? Thanks again for reading and engaging!

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