My commendations go out to the St Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers Union (SVGTU) and to the teachers of this country as they enter the concluding activities to mark Teachers Solidarity Week. Its origins go back to the historic teachers’ strike of 1975 and the vicious response of the government of the day, particularly in the tear gassing of innocent bystanders as the teachers staged a peaceful march on November 14, 1975, giving rise to the name of Tear Gas Friday.
That was almost a half of a century ago, so the SVGTU must indeed be commended for keeping the memory alive. I know from experience how difficult it must be. Times change and new generations step forward with new perspectives but the commitment to the cause continues and has never flagged. It is a magnificent achievement unmatched in the history of the local trade union movement.
If on no other occasion, Teachers Solidarity Week should always invoke the memory of the contributions of the leaders of the union and the stalwart teachers led by the then President Comrade Mike Browne, his Vice President the late Yvonne Francis- Gibson and those who put life and limb on the front line. In the three months between September and November 1975, police laid no fewer than 106 charges against them; some were arrested and charged more than once. We must always remember and honour them.
Unfortunately for much of the 46 years since, relations between the Union and Governments have not been hearty though teachers have played an important role in electing successive governments. But there is no denying that whatever the shortcomings the teachers have won important victories and advances. Teachers of today are certainly in a much better situation than in 1975, as indeed it should be.
The year 2021 draws to a close with relations between the Union and Government not on the best of terms and the rhetoric emanating from the leadership of the SVGTU certainly indicates this. Whether the views expressed and positions taken reflects the views of the vast majority of teachers is another matter.
The burning issue of the day seems to be Government’s actions in designating teachers as “frontline workers” where the fight against the deadly COVID pandemic is concerned and therefore including them among the categories of government employees required to be vaccinated or at least regularly tested.
Not only has the union leadership strongly objected but it has endorsed the “My choice” position espoused by a motley array of persons objecting to workers being required to be vaccinated. Now viewed from an individualist position and one in normal circumstances, such a position would seem quite in tune with one’s human rights.
The problem is that the situation is far from normal. This is a pandemic which has already taken the lives of over 5 million people the world over and shows no sign of abating. We simply cannot ignore it and it has been palpably demonstrated the vaccination is the most effective means of combating it. No jury is out on that one.
Those who, for one reason or another oppose vaccination have yet to put forward a credible alternative. But in addition, one cannot equate the ravages of the pandemic to a “normal” situation where each is free to chart his own course. If for instance one is travelling on the ferry to the Grenadines, one is free to decide where one wants to sit or occupy on the boat, providing the travelling conditions allow it.
However if the boat meets troubled waters, the captain may decide that persons are not allowed to sit on this or that side of the boat.
The purpose is to protect the lives of all and your choice has to be subsumed to the greater good. It is as simple as that.
On a broader level, it is difficult to understand why those who have objections to the approaches taken globally, while respecting individual rights of dissenters, did not, at an organisational level, at least recognizing the gravity of the situation, attempt to persuade the dissenters in their ranks to place the welfare of all citizens before one’s personal choices.
Perhaps if such an approach had been adopted, by unions, politicians and clergymen, we would have been able to persuade a critical mass of the population and so avoid this unfortunate bickering which does the country or its people no good. How could we have ruled out such an approach to take the road of confrontation and almost be encouraging workers to abandon their employment?
It is a situation which weakens workers’ solidarity, makes it difficult for other, natural allies of the Union to support.
We must never lose sight of the broader picture, nor for whatever reasons take the side of irrationality. The entire society will suffer as a result, its social cohesion ruptured.
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.