On Monday, the Sri Lanka Teachers-Principals Union Alliance announced the end of the 100-day teachers’ strike for decent wages and ordered all union members to return to work on October 25. The decision, taken without any democratic discussion with the teachers’ files, was a slavish response to the government’s claims that it could not pay more than one-eighth of the requested salary increase.
According to the government’s offer, which will come into effect in January 2022, the monthly salary increase for a first-year teacher will be only 3,850 rupees (US $ 19) and only 1,250 rupees (US $ 6 ) for a third-year apprentice teacher. This increase does not even keep pace with the rapid rise in the cost of living.
Ceylon Teachers ‘Union (CTU) Secretary General Joseph Stalin and Mahinda Jayasinghe, secretary of the Ceylon Teachers’ Service Union headed by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, said the strike, in a show of “force against government threats”, would continue on October 21 and 22 but that all teachers are expected to return to work on October 25.
The end of the determined nationwide online education strike of 250,000 teachers, who defied state repression and continued government provocations for more than three months, is a shameful betrayal. In a pathetic attempt to allay the anger of the teachers, the union leadership loudly and demagogically proclaimed that union action would continue after October 25 until their demands were met. This is empty rhetoric.
Thousands of teachers have voiced their opposition overwhelmingly on social media, comparing the clearance sale to repeated betrayals by the teachers’ union over the past 24 years, since 1997, when the demand for a pay rise was first made. However, the anger aroused by this betrayal is not enough. Teachers must learn political lessons from this and previous struggles and adopt new methods.
From the start, the Rajapakse government repeatedly stated that teachers’ demands could not be met due to Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, which worsened due to COVID-19. Chanting the same mantra, the government rejected the demands of all other sections of the working class, including those in the health sector that demanded a special allowance, appropriate safety equipment and other necessities for workers during the pandemic.
Teachers and other workers have watched this right-wing government place the full burden of the financial crisis on the masses with cuts in wages, benefits and jobs and demands for increased productivity. This social aggression is combined with massive increases in the cost of essential items and further tax hikes even as billions of rupees in relief packages are handed over to large corporations.
Along with the teachers, workers in the health, ports, plantations, electricity and oil sectors have gone on strike against these attacks. The struggles erupting in Sri Lanka are part of a growing wave of industrial action by the international working class. Like his counterparts around the world, President Gotabhaya Rajapakse is moving towards dictatorial forms of government.
In defiance of repeated calls by epidemiologists and health scientists to close schools and all non-essential production, the government has allowed industries, such as clothing, to maintain their profit activities without worrying about life. workers. All unions, including in the education sector, have supported these life threatening policies. The teachers’ union fully supported government directives to reopen schools, threatening the lives of children, teachers and parents.
The Socialist Equality Party (SEP) and the Teacher-Student-Parents Safety Committee (TSPSC) have always argued that teacher salary demands directly challenge the Rajapakse government and bring them into conflict with international finance capital, including the International Monetary Fund, which dictates Colombo’s policy.
As explained in the TSPSC press release titled “A Program to Struggle for Teachers’ Salary Strike in Sri Lanka” published on July 26: “The fight against the Colombo attacks and the defense of life and social rights require a political struggle against the government and the whole capitalist system.
The statement also stressed that the teachers’ struggle should be waged by an independent political movement of the working class, in unity with workers in other sectors who face the same capitalist attacks.
The school principals ‘unions are totally hostile to this political struggle and have constantly insisted that teachers’ demands can be met by putting pressure on the government. They boasted that this pressure now had enormous power due to the large number of education unions involved in the struggle.
Teachers, however, have witnessed bitterly the utter bankruptcy of this prospect, a process replicated in the experiences of workers around the world.
The 100-day struggle of the teachers has once again demonstrated that the unions are linked to the capitalist system from head to toe and act as political instruments of international capital against the working class.
As CTU General Secretary Stalin said at a press conference on October 14: “We are not demanding the very pound of flesh and have become as flexible as possible. In other words, the union leaders did their “best” to reduce the teachers’ initial demands and bring them into line with the dictates of the Rajapakse government and the IMF.
The unions, in fact, attempted to call off the strike early on using a false government promise that teachers’ demands could be met through negotiations. The unions, however, were unable to reverse action in the face of strong opposition from teachers to the government’s miserable offer.
As the conflict dragged on, the government threatened the unions and demanded an end to the strike. On October 14, Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekera warned that “strict measures” would be taken against union leaders who “interrupted” the reopening of schools.
“Whether the reasons for the teachers’ strike are reasonable or not, it is unfair because it has an impact on the children,” he said and threatened to quell the struggle “as if we had defeated the terrorism ”- a statement he had previously issued.
The government and figures like Weerasekera have had the courage to make these threats thanks to the unions’ tacit support for President Rajapakse’s draconian emergency laws and “essential services” regulations. These prohibit any strike action by more than one million public sector workers in the country.
Weerasekera seized baseless allegations that non-striking teachers were threatened and started a Criminal Investigations Department witch hunt against teachers involved in the industrial action. The false allegations were made by Vasantha Handapangoda, president of the Sri Lanka Podujana Education Service Association, which supports the government.
In their attempts to break the strike, the secretary of the local government ministry ordered graduate trainees attached to division secretariats to be employed in schools from October 21.
The government also ordered the deployment of police and troops to all reopened schools. School principals have been ordered by the education authorities to hand over the keys to the schools to the relevant local education offices, in order to ensure the reopening of schools in the absence of principals and teachers. These rogue actions were clear attempts to force open schools and intimidate teachers and principals.
As the government stepped up its provocations and efforts to quell the teachers’ struggle, the Teacher-Student-Parents Safety Committee responded with calls to mobilize workers from other sectors to defend the striking teachers.
The teachers’ unions and all other Sri Lankan unions opposed this prospect, fearing that such unity would turn into a political struggle involving the government and bourgeois power. The end of the teachers’ strike by the unions is the inevitable result of their pro-capitalist policies.
The lessons of the teachers’ strike make it clear that none of the demands of the working class, including a living wage for teachers, can be won by putting pressure on the government. What is needed is a united political struggle of the working class against the government and the entire capitalist system, independent of the unions. Teachers cannot allow their struggles to remain in the hands of the unions. They must take this fight into their own hands.
The TSPSC statement of July 26 stated:
“We urge teachers to create independent teacher-student-parent safety committees in every school, to rally parents, students and other sections of the working class, as well as the oppressed, to defend free public education. with the following claims:
• Increase the minimum monthly salary for teachers to 60,000 rupees, indexed to the cost of living!
• Full board for all teachers!
• Allocation of 10% of GDP to public education!
• All teachers and students should have free computers and online facilities!
• No reopening of schools in dangerous pandemic conditions!
• The provision of adequate housing credit facilities with low interest rates!
“These vitally necessary requirements cannot be met in the capitalist profit system. The billions of rupees needed can only be found by refusing to pay foreign loans and nationalizing large corporations, estates and banks under democratic workers’ control. A workers ‘and peasants’ government must be brought to power to implement these policies. This struggle can only be waged within the framework of the struggle for international socialism.
“This is the program put forward by SEP in Sri Lanka as part of the struggle of the International Committee of the Fourth International to develop the International Alliance of Grassroots Committee Workers.