Why do University Teachers resort to Trade Union Action?:
A Statement by the Executive Committee of the Federation of University Teachers’ Association
1. Trade Unions may not have a long history but in the short history of their existence they have acquired an indelible presence in the affairs of nation-states. Trade unions historically evolved as organizations to defend collectively the rights and interests of working people. Although TUs seek to win their demands through soft and hard negotiations, in some instances, they are compelled to launch strong trade union actions, especially when employers, public or private sector, disregard totally the interests of their employees. Middle class unions, like the union of university teachers, always prefer to win their demands through negotiations. Hence, since 2007, Federation of University Teachers' Associations and its sister unions have engaged in negotiations at different levels to arrive at a satisfactory resolution to their demands. With that purpose in mind, it has had many discussions with the President, the Minister of Higher Education, the University Grant Commission, the Secretary to the Treasury, and the Salary and Cadre Commission.
2. However, while many promises have been made, none have been put into practice. As a result, their patience at an end, the university teachers were compelled to launch a token strike in September 2010 to express their dissatisfaction with the lukewarm response of the government to their legitimate grievances. However, FUTA decided in good faith to suspend its plan to step up further action when a promise was made by a high-powered committee that the demands of the university teachers would be amicably settled in the Budget 2011. Just prior to that agreement, the Minister of Higher Education, Mr S B Disanayaka, made a statement in the Parliament that he would increase the university teachers’ salaries substantially to put them on a par with the salaries of university teachers in the region. Not satisfied with that general statement, he specifically stated that the salary of a senior professor would be increased to Rs 200,000 although the demand for salary increases in the FUTA document submitted for negotiation with the authorities is much lower than that. Nonetheless, the Budget 2011 did not deal with the issue of the salaries of the university teachers in a meaningful fashion. It was in this context, that the FUTA and its sister unions decided to launch a second token strike on March 15. After the strike, the Minister of Higher Education asked the FUTA representatives to meet him on April 17. At this meeting, he reiterated that he accepted in principle all the demands of university teachers and promised that he would arrange a meeting with the President in order to discuss the matter. Although FUTA sent a letter through the Minister to the President in line with this undertaking, FUTA is yet to receive an acknowledgement, let alone an appointment, from the office of the President. So all the sister unions of FUTA ratified the recommendation of FUTA that the university teachers will go for a series of strong trade union actions. The two actions that FUTA has decided on are: (1) Resigning from all voluntary administrative posts that they now hold. The university teachers would continue to do their normal work if the necessary facilities and environment are provided; (2) Refraining from participation in GCE A/L Examination work in August 2011.
3. FUTA further expresses its dismay and dissatisfaction over the statements made by the authorities, including the Minister of Higher Education, that seek to both degrade the credentials and status and to cast aspersions on the reputation and conduct of university teachers, with ill-founded allegations and accusations. It also dismisses the claim by the government that the salaries of the university teachers were increased by 36% in the Budget 2011 while that of other public sector employees were increased by just 5%. On the contrary, extra restrictions were imposed on university teachers when the benefits given to other public sector employees were applied to them such as the concessionary vehicle import permits. Furthermore, the newly introduced PAYE tax will further erode the minimal gain in salary granted to them under the provisions of the Budget.
4. The situation of the state universities has significantly deteriorated since the early 1980s due to multiple factors. Owing to the fact that the salaries and allowances in the universities were allowed to slide substantially lower than that of comparable sectors over the years, the university system has failed to attract and to retain the best products of our own universities. The best young graduates either get attracted to the higher salaries and working conditions of other sectors locally or migrate abroad in search of the proverbial greener pastures. As the Ministry of Higher Education itself has reiterated in recent times, 550 teachers in university service who went abroad either on study leave or on sabbatical leave have not returned. These facts only serve to demonstrate how unattractive the current salaries and working conditions are for the best young minds of this country. But the negative fall-outs are not limited to the failure of those who go abroad to return. It has made it virtually impossible for some faculties even the existing cadre vacancies with qualified academics, which in turn impacts negatively on the type of graduate produced and the type of scholarly contribution provided. Hence, if the government is committed in good faith to improve the quality of the state university system, it has to introduce an attractive salary structure that is on a par with comparable professions both locally and in the region. In this respect, Sri Lanka is behind India where per capita income is much lower. A university professor in India receives something like Rs 250,000 per month plus other benefits. It would be an unpardonable mistake if the government thinks that the private universities, euphemistically referred to as non-state universities, can either become a substitute for state universities or fill the vacuum created by their atrophy.
5. The argument of the government that public universities are not profit-making institutions is not only ridiculous but dangerous because it reveals the government’s cavalier attitude to investments in education and higher education. Investments in public goods do not always yield either immediate or measurable benefits. Investments in public higher education is an investment in the future of this nation—a responsibility that no private university will accept in good faith
6. Since the last token strike, the university teachers in Sri Lanka have shown their determination and commitment to defend the state university system as high quality educational institutions producing world-class graduates and researchers whose contributions will make a difference both nationally and internationally. This entire struggle is to defend and protect the state universities as a system that ensures high quality education to the people of Sri Lanka irrespective of their ability to pay and to ensure the quality and dignity of our profession.
7. It appears that the government is planning through undemocratic means to break the trade union actions of the university teachers. We reiterate that we are as a collective ready for it. And we ask the government not to engage in such undemocratic activities that will only deteriorate the opportunity for an amicable settlement. The government should understand that the victory of university teachers in this struggle to secure their legitimate demands is a victory for education, higher education, science and development. Since they represent that sector of university teachers who through thick and thin have remained committed to the principle of high quality public higher education, their victory is the victory of the masses, those large numbers of Sri Lankans for whom the state universities remain the only answer to their aspirations for higher education for their children. Hence FUTA also suggests that in order to improve the coverage and the quality of higher education, the state should increase its expenditure on education, higher education, science and development to reach at least 6% of the gross domestic product. Finally, we hope that the government will see that our victory will represent a victory for them in their ambition to transform Sri Lanka into the next Asian Miracle in the next five years or so making it a knowledge hub in the region.