Remember November: Saluting Teachers
R. Rose - Eye of the Needle
November 17, 2023

Remember November: Saluting Teachers

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza continues of the historic teachers’ strike of 1975, an unforgettable event in the annals of the SVGTU itself, the local trade union movement and the country as a whole. For me just to think that I am here, two years away from the 50th anniversary of that momentous event, brings treasured memories of a glorious chapter in our country’s history.

The fact that teachers, so-called “white collar” workers, could have the courage and fortitude to undertake industrial action, unprecedented in my time and on a scale not experienced since the 50s and early 60s, was certainly an eye-opener to many. Could they stand up to the self-styled “strongest government in the world”, the Cato/Joshua “Unity Government” formed in 1974?

The strike of November 1975 was no overnight reactive or impulsive action on the part of the teachers and their union. There were five major contributing grounds on which the Government had refused to hold meaningful dialogue with, not just the SVGTU, but with representatives of public sector workers as well.

There was the refusal to pay backpay of $750, a not inconsiderable sum those days, owing to public sector workers since the days of the previous government, to which the governing party had firmly committed itself during the election campaign of 1974. Added to this was the teachers demand for salary revision, a demand shared by the rest of the public service.

But the teachers of 1975 were not a selfish lot, for their demands included working conditions for teachers, a necessary area for the improvement of education, a collective agreement between the government and the union, as well as a repeal of the colonial-era Public Servants Act of 1971.

The decision to call the strike followed months of disagreement between the SVGTU and Government which had led to the teachers staging several pickets of the Ministry of Education to win public support for their cause. Incidentally, the industrial relations climate as a whole during those days was very charged. Health workers in particular were also making demands for improved working conditions and better health services. It would be interesting to compare (or is contrast a more relevant term?), the conditions of the social services then with what obtains today.

The high-handed reaction of the Cato government to disgruntled nurses and health workers, its repressive actions, including against the premier Vincentian surgeon Dr Cecil Cyrus, had already alienated public opinion but health workers, particularly nurses, felt very vulnerable in the face of threats to their livelihood. It was the SVGTU which gave public support to their cause, a most unselfish demonstration of solidarity.

But to have the courage to undertake strike action was a bold and very brave step to take. Such action was traditionally only taken by “blue collar” workers, not “decent” teachers and public servants, as the anti-union propaganda stated. Then, with the open threat that striking teachers would not be paid, how would teachers and their families make out in such “guava crop” times? The Union certainly could not financially support them.

It was a powerful disincentive to strike action, heightened by the threat of dismissal of striking teachers. Could they hold out in the face of such threats and physical intimidation by the police? During one of the pickets of the Ministry of Education, some 31 teachers were arrested and charged. These included leaders and principal activists of the Union.

Worse was to come on November 14, 1975, “Tear Gas Friday” as it came to be known, when the police launched a savage attack on a peaceful teachers march, arresting the top leadership of the Union and wickedly covering Kingstown with tear gas. Never before or since was such repression experienced here. It baffles me up to today how politicians who ordered such a vicious assault could be considered for “National Hero” status.

It was not easy to sustain the industrial action taken and the Union owes eternal gratitude to the brother/sister combination of Mike Browne and Joye Browne, the late sister Yvonne Francis, respected Principal George Bailey and such stalwarts of the Union as Samuel ‘Kala’ Gordon, Cecil ‘Pa’ Jack, Simeon Greene, Ferdinand “Ferdy” Toney, Duggie ‘Nose” Joseph and top cultural artistes as Cecil ‘Blazer’ Williams, Jeff James and Victor ‘Mwata’ Byron, among others who all felt the wrath of the police and discomfort of their cells.

Many other non-teachers also gave solid support to the cause of the teachers in more ways than one. The late trade unionist Caspar London, himself became unselfishly an adviser to the Union, helping them to keep the faith when it was wavering. The SVGTU owes much to his input and to the daily support of the organization to which he belonged, YULIMO. But that is for another day and time.

It was one of our leading poets who had made the famous statement that, “Time is a bitch”. We must not let the passage of time erase from history the heroic deeds of those who came before us. As I wish the SVGTU all the best, I again encourage them to never let that heroic chapter of our history die and always recall not just the principal actors but the unsung heroes as well.

  • Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.