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Monday, July 25, 2011

University Teachers’ trade unon actions: FAQs

The Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) decided last Thursday to call off trade union action it had embarked on May 9, 2011. The decision to that effect has raised some issues among the university teachers. Was it a sell-out? Was the decision incorrect in the given context? Is it true that FUTA could have won more had it taken a decision to continue the trade union action? As a person who was actively involved in the trade union action and also as a victim of the slanderous campaign by a group of university teachers that I was instrumental in the so-called ‘great betrayal’, I think it is relevant to discuss some of the issues raised by some university dons. This note would be my last engagement in the salary struggle of the university teachers, as I have decided conclusively that I will disengage in all future trade union actions by FUTA on salary and related matters. The trade union action in the last two months has created a new and dynamic leadership and I hope that it has the capacity to take the struggle forward in the near future.

Many social activists and trade unionists have looked at carefully FUTA’s trade union action as it embodied so many new features. So, reflecting on the way in which the trade union action was conducted by FUTA and how the negotiation were done may provide some lessons for other social movements. I would summarize these lessons in the form of answers to frequently asked questions.

1. Why did FUTA decide to call off the trade union action? Trade union action in normal time has limited objectives. In case of FUTA, we have raised demands that need short-term and long-term answers. The demands were (1) raise the salaries of university teachers to make their salaries on par with the salaries of the university teachers in the main countries of SAARC region implementing the proposal by the UGC committee in 2008; (2) the university teachers should be treated as a separate category; (3) restore the facilities that were taken away from them in the past 5 years; and (4) increase state spending on education and higher education to 6% of the GDP. Accepting the fact, that these demands cannot be met fully overnight, FUTA presented a minimum set of demands seeking immediate solutions. Minister Higher Education said just before the trade union action that the possibility of granting these interim demands was less than 0. 0001. After a long struggle, the President promised that in order to correct existing salary anomaly; he was agreeable to increase the salary of a senior professor to Rs 115,000, a part of which is conditional. This is Rs. 17,000 less than what FUTA had asked for, but a 17,000-rupee increase from the present salary. As far as the salary demand is concerned, it is not a total victory for FUTA; but no one could argue it is not a total defeat either. One may describe it as an equidistant compromise. After this agreement, FUTA identified three issues that remained unresolved as far as the interim demands are concerned. Three issues were: (1) Since this is only an interim and transitory solution, a committee with FUTA participation should be appointed to look into the next phases of salary increase; (2) The circular 956 that introduced new restriction on appointments of voluntary positions should be withdrawn; and (3) the portion of the salary increase that is conditional should be made available without conditions. At the meeting with the Secretary, Ministry of Higher Education, the 1 and 2 were resolved to the satisfaction of FUTA; but it was informed that the conditions attached Research and Development allowance could not be removed. Any person who has some vague idea about trade union action may accept that after this there is no ground for continuing trade union action further. So it is in this context, FUTA decided to call off the trade union action.

2. There was a charge that there were some ‘Judasas’ in the negotiating team who struck a secret deal with the authorities. Is there a truth in this accusation? FUTA began its trade union action to win demands from the present government. Although the Chairman, UGC claimed many a time that FUTA was planning a ‘regime change’, FUTA did not have such a hidden agenda. So at the very beginning, we are well aware that we had to deal with the present government and not with a government that may come in a distant future. The entire trade union action was aimed at moving the government away from its previous hard stance. After the Kandy meeting, we witnessed that the government began to soften its position. The trade union action was not to change the regime but to change the mindset of the regime. In doing this, FUTA discussed with many people formally and informally face to face as well as over the phone and through e-mail. The membership was apprised of all these developments.

3. What are the gains? (1) a reasonable salary increase to university teachers as a result of partially correcting existing salary anomaly; (2) the reduction of eligibility for concessionary car permits from 12 to 8 years; (3) an appointment of a committee with FUTA representation to look into future salary adjustments of the university teachers; (4) making concessionary housing loans available to university teachers; (5) increase of payments for extra duties, like paper setting, marking etc. (6) withdrawal of circular that is inconsistent with the Act. Besides these formal and quantitative gains, the most important gain, in my view, is unprecedented mobilization of the solidarity of university teachers.

4. Can it be depicted as a total success? Only in a very rare situation, can trade unions win all their demands. So, it is incorrect to claim that our trade union action ended with complete success. However, if we pose this question to a battle-scarred trade unionist, I am sure he would inform us that our success rate is above average.

5. Do you think that the continuation of the trade union action for another month or so would have produced better results? It is difficult to answer a hypothetical question like this. However, the success of trade union action does not depend on the length thereof. Moreover, the protraction of trade union action is always difficult. What is of importance was the power configuration when the TU action began and how it changed as action progressed. Similarly, a trade union should not expose its full strength in one struggle. What Tariq Ali wrote in his novel, ‘Islam Quintet’, may be relevant here. "An indiscretion or a thoughtless boast … could cost our side an entire army and set back our cause for decades." Hence the leadership should know when and where to begin a struggle as well as when to end it. Reflecting on everything that happened, I would argue that we have achieved the best possible results under the given circumstances. And I firmly believe that we stopped it at the correct and relevant moment. A great strategist, V. I. Lenin wrote a short text in 1922 entitled "On Ascending a High Mountain". As a member of FUTA, this text guided me always. In this text, he used the simile of a climber who has returned to the valley after an unsuccessful attempt to reach a mountain peak (metaphor for total victory). In a way, it is a retreat. Lenin wrote: "Communists [yes there were not many communists in FUTA struggle. I am glad to put myself in this rare category] who have no illusions, who do not give way to despondency, and who preserve their strength and flexibility ‘to begin from the beginning’ over and over again in approaching an extremely difficult task, are not doomed (and in all probability do not perish)" (V I Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 3). Sun Tzu in his ‘Arts of War’ (the oldest text on war strategy) emphasized the importance of positioning in military strategy, and that the decision to position an army must be based on both objective conditions in the physical environment and the subjective beliefs of other, competitive actors in that environment. He thought that strategy was not planning in the sense of working through an established list, but rather that it requires quick and appropriate responses to changing conditions. Planning works in a controlled environment, but in a changing environment, competing plans collide, creating unexpected situations

6. Is there any lesson for the government, and employers? I wrote a couple weeks ago that one of the weaknesses of the present government is that it makes manageable problems unmanageable. The same is true of private companies. My advice is that when employees/ governed/ marginalized groups ask for something give the possible maximum in the first instance without any delay.

7. What kind of negotiation principle was used in the process? This is the question that I would like to discuss at length. The theoretical aspect of this was addressed in an article that I wrote a couple of years ago. In this article, I tried to develop what is called communicative negotiation.This is based on Habermaian principle of communicative rationality. We did not consider the negotiators of the government as enemies. We made them aware that we understood their own problems in addressing the issues at hand. We rarely used (I think only in two occasions) what is called ‘negotiation jujitsu’. I will address this issue later in a long article.

The writer teaches political economy at the University of Peradeniya and acted as the chairperson of the FUTA negotiating team.

E-mail: sumane_l@yahoo.com