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Sunday, May 15, 2011

FUTA puts off all out strike

By Rohan Abeywardena

Bringing some sanity to the ongoing trade union action by university teachers that is causing chaos in the country’s highest places of learning, the Executive Committee of the Federation of University Teachers Associations that met on Friday evening decided not to launch an all out strike pending a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa to thrash out their outstanding issues. President of FUTA Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri yesterday replied to some of the criticisms leveled against them on the telephone while he was on the move.

Q: What was the final decision of the Executive Committee meeting of the Federation of University Teachers Associations held on Friday evening?
We decided to continue with the trade union action, but will not launch an all out strike as we are expecting a positive response from the President for a discussion. We are also concerned about some intimidation tactics resorted to by vice chancellors to force our members who have resigned to serve as acting heads of departments. We feel that is an illegal request and we are not going to comply. The decision was not to take any further action for the time being. Those were the main points taken at the meeting.

Q: Any decision on the letters of resignation?

That will remain as it is. We will review the situation when we meet again next Friday. By then we hope there will be a positive and favourable response from the President.

Q: Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake says it is impossible to grant the 200 per cent salary increase demanded by FUTA as already the university academic staff had been given an increase of 36.25 per cent from the last budget, where as all other government servants had been given an increase of five per cent.

Our demand is not 200 per cent. He knows what our demands are.

Q:Then what are your demands?

I don’t have the table at the moment. It depends on how you calculate. For example a senior most professor’s salary should rise by slightly more than 100 per cent. There is a long-standing salary anomaly.

Q: The Minister says you all deserve big increases, but the problem is if it was granted through Treasury money, it would create chaos as then others too would demand increases. His idea was to pay the enhanced salaries he promised by first making the universities money spinners.

What the Minister promised was to raise the salary of a senior professor to about Rs. 200,000 and a probationary lecturer to Rs.70,000 that was based on our original demand.

Q:What he says is that he can’t do things overnight as already they have granted an increase of 36.25 per cent exclusively to university academic staff from the last budget.

When he speaks to us, he won’t say such things. In speaking to the media he paints a totally different picture. I don’t think the problem can be solved through double speak. We have given ample time. The salary proposal that we have put forward is something that the UGC upheld in September 2008 that is nearly three years ago. We are not asking him to do it overnight. How much time do they need?  They have to come up with a time frame.

Q: Have you all obtained an appointment to meet the President?

Not yet. If they tell us they need certain time frame, then we can take that into consideration. But we don’t see such an approach from their part other than a hostile one, connecting us to Ban Ki-moon, the JVP, UNP……..

Q:You all will have to grant that since assuming the office of the Higher Education Minister he has successfully tackled some difficult issues like inhuman ragging.

Yes, but we are not responsible for that. When we met him last time on April 17, we categorically stated that we will cooperate with whatever action he takes for the betterment of the university system. We agreed lots of reforms have to be introduced and lots of changes have to be made and we will fully support that. So, there is no problem about that. Revising of the salary structure is also part of the reforms that are needed. To attract the best people into the system we need to do that.

Q:He totally agrees on that account.

If he agrees, then he has to take measures to implement it.

Q: What is the time frame you all are agreeable to?

That has to be decided at the negotiations. They are the people who are responsible. They have to give us a time frame. We have been waiting for a long time since 2008.

Q:Has your letter reached the President by now?

We wrote long ago on March 29 and on April 23 we hand delivered the letter to the Secretary of the Higher Education Ministry. We don’t know what happened to the original letter. We hand delivered a copy on Wednesday to the Presidential Secretariat and they confirmed it was delivered to the President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga.

Q:How long will you hold your fire?

Our membership is quite confident about our collective strength. We have a success of 90 percent in the present trade union action, apart from a few places. Even in places where we were much weaker we have sizable support as in Kelaniya and Colombo.

Q:Some of your members have withdrawn their letters of resignation as in Ayurvedic University at Borella.          

They are only rumours. On Wednesday, they called me and said there are rumours that letters of resignation have been withdrawn, but there was no truth to it.