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Sunday, July 24, 2011


By Harini Amarasuriya, Camena Gunaratne and Dileepa Witharana

The last several months of trade union action led by FUTA drew considerable support from its membership among all the Sri Lankan universities.  In fact, it was evident that FUTA was able to strengthen and broaden its demands because of the enthusiasm and energy of its membership.  The leadership of FUTA commented on this growing strength and the need for continued action in all its public rallies and statements culminating in the extremely successful rally in Jaffna on the 9th of July.
Given this level of support for the trade union action as well as the spirited statements made by FUTA leaders, the abrupt manner in which the union action was suspended is extremely surprising and upsetting for the majority of its membership.  Of course, trade union negotiations are tough and negotiating with a particularly authoritarian and violent regime is even tougher.  However, up to the last couple of weeks, the FUTA leadership gave no indication of weakening or hinted at being ready to compromise.  Nor is the non-consultative manner in which the union action was called off consistent with the way in which FUTA has behaved in the past couple of months. 
In order to clarify some of these issues as well as to quell the conspiracy theories that are multiplying at the moment (to the detriment of the academic community’s ability to mobilise in the future) the Executive Committees of FUTA as well as its sister unions need to respond to the following questions:

1.       Although FUTA established the democratic practice of maintaining a continuous dialogue with the membership almost throughout the trade union action why was there a mighty hurry to abandon it even without consulting the membership of the sister unions? Consulting the sister unions would have only required an additional day or two.  If FUTA was able to maintain trade union action for over two months, why could it not wait a few more days to consult the sister unions on this most important decision?

2.       What was the basis on which representatives of the sister unions agreed to suspend the trade union action at the last FUTA Executive Committee meeting?  Had they consulted their membership?  Were the views of the membership adequately represented to FUTA?  If not why?   If they had any misgivings about the decisions that were being made, why did they not express them more strongly?

3.       What is the basis on which the FUTA leadership agreed to the current interim ‘solution’?  Again, why was the interim solution agreed to in such a hurry and presented as the only option in a context where:

a.       There was solid and enthusiastic backing from the membership to strengthen the trade union action, and

b.       Only a single action - resigning from voluntary positions - out of many possible actions, had so far been carried out.

4.        It is a fundamental in trade union activism to strengthen action when the response from the government/employer is not positive. Why did the leadership of FUTA (that even two weeks ago) proposed such radical options such as going for a full scale strike and resigning mass scale from all academic positions find itself unable to wait and implement milder actions such as boycotting of AL examination work and implementing the resignation of Deans before rushing to abandon the only action taken so far?

5.       Though "attracting, recruiting and retaining the best" was one of our main slogans, why did the leadership of FUTA suddenly forgot the aspects of "attracting" and recruiting" when agreeing to the ridiculously small increase in academic allowance for Lecturer (Probationary) and thereby creating further anomalies within academic salaries? What was the basis on which the percentages of increment for each category were worked out?

6.       Though autonomy of universities was another aspect correctly highlighted in the entire campaign  why is the FUTA leadership contradicting that important principle by  requesting the Secretary of the Minister of Higher Education to withdraw UGC circulars and thereby creating the space for the Ministry to get involved in decision making of the UGC?

7.       Why was the stand that was consistently highlighted in the past months that the trade union action would only be stopped after the proper implementation of promises suddenly abandoned?  What is the basis on which the nomination of committee to further negotiate permanent solutions hailed as a great victory?

8.       What was the basis on which such a committee was nominated? Who proposed this committee which limits FUTA representation to three, which in principle violates the previous FUTA agreement not to send a limited number of people for negotiations? 

9.   What is the basis on which the committee was nominated? Shouldn’t sister unions have a say in who is on this committee?
10.   Why was the news of the suspension of the trade union action given so hurriedly to the media even before the decision was conveyed to the sister unions or approved by the sister unions?  In fact, the news started spreading even before the FUTA Executive Committee meeting has been adjourned!  
Perhaps there are perfectly rational, logical and sensible responses to these questions.  If the FUTA leadership was serious and truthful about the role of academics in Sri Lankan society in the future and the need for FUTA to continue its struggle for university autonomy, academic freedom and the protection of higher education in Sri Lanka, then the membership deserves answers to these questions.  Leaving them unanswered will only demoralise and divide the membership and this must be prevented as far as possible.