by Renwick Rose
As the St Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers Union (SVGTU) rounds up Teachers’ Solidarity Week, in commemoration of the events of November 1975 when it was engaged in an epic industrial dispute with the government of the day, it may well be that a substantial portion of the union’s membership were not even born then.
It is therefore useful to recall for their sake and that of the younger generation, some of the major developments in that struggle especially in November 1975.
(1) Actually, teachers and public servants had been promised a cost-of-living backpay in lieu of outstanding salary increases due since under the “Junta” government of 1972-74. But the incoming Labour party administration did not honour this commitment and the unions representing the workers began demanding their due.
(2) At the same time there was unrest in the health services especially between the government on the one hand and leading doctors and nurses on the other. A commonality of interests was therefore easy to establish.
(3) The government took a heavy-handed approach to both the nurses and dismissed the leading Vincentian surgeon Dr. Cecil Cyrus, precipitating calls from the Nurses Association for his reinstatement, address of their grievances and the removal of Health Minister Russell. The nurses appealed to the Teachers Union for support.
(4) On September 13, following a heated General meeting which ratified the demands of teachers, the Union led by Mike Browne staged an impromptu “March in solidarity” with the nurses. 28 teachers were subsequently charged for participating in an illegal procession.
(5) The following week, on September 20, a militant General Meeting of the Teachers Union ratified five demands to the government, called for a meeting with government by October 8. No such meeting took place and teachers began mobilizing for action.
(6) The industrial atmosphere became more charged during the month of October. Ominously leaders of the union and evn their families began receiving threats. The father of Mike Browne, Mr Audley Browne deceased, himself an outstanding educator, was the victim of a violent assaultand robbery on October 31. One day later, a young teacher and stalwart of the union, was held at gunpoint and beaten by a well-known police Inspector.
(7) The long-suffering teachers went on strike on November 3 in furtherance of their five demands- cost of living backpay; improvement of working conditions; salary revision; a new collective agreement; and the Repeal of the Public Service Act. Significantly the Court threw out the charges against the 28 teachers as mentioned above.
(8) On November 13, 31 more teachers were arrested and charged for “obstruction of the police” with charges for illegal procession” made against 10 others.
(9) November 14 gained notoriety as “Tear Gas Friday” after an unprovoked attack by police on a peaceful march of teachers and sympathisers. The arrest of the Union leadership seemed to be a signal for the unleashing of a brutal tear gassing of demonstrators and bystanders in capital city Kingstown. Never has there been any other assault like this in our history.
(10) That, in a capsule is the history behind Teachers Solidarity Week.