The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) re-launched its trade union action on Thursday the 26th of April with a token strike and rally. In the context of the renewed attention in tertiary education and the threat of further trade union action by FUTA, this article seeks to draw out some questions that FUTA will have to deal with if it is to avoid the debacle of its last trade union action.
FUTA Strike 2011
The FUTA strike of 2011 was a high watermark in the recent history of State universities in Sri Lanka. On May 9th 2011, FUTA members resigned from their administrative posts in the universities as part of its trade union action to demand higher wages for university academics. However in the build-up to May 9 and in its immediate aftermath it became clear that the issue of higher wages was not the only issue that was a concern for FUTA. The final clarion call for the allocation of 6% of GDP on education (it is currently less than 2%) marked a key moment for the trade union as it highlighted a shift away from the narrow demands of better wages, to a larger concern for the future of higher education in Sri Lanka. It is perhaps no coincidence that these developments also arose in the backdrop of government plans to introduce private medical colleges (as seen by the furore created by the SAITM campus at Malabe). The broader concern for the higher education sector in Sri Lanka gave way to “an academic spring” and led many to believe that “a sleeping giant” had been awoken.i
However, the sudden suspension of trade union action in July on the agreement made by the FUTA leadership surprised many, especially due to the terms of the final agreement that was reached between FUTA and the government. The three agreements that were made at the time were the removal of conditions on components of the salaries of academics (particularly the research allowance), a committee comprising representatives from FUTA and the government would be formed to resolve salary anomalies, and finally the withdrawal of a circular that made it mandatory for academics to give three months notice when resigning from voluntary administrative positions.
Noticeably many of the broader issues raised during the trade union action were not part of the agreement reached between FUTA and the government and the agreement reflects a concern that is almost exclusively focused on the wages of permanent lecturers within the university system. Due to this it would be easy to take away an impression that FUTA was not really concerned about the larger issues facing the higher education system in Sri Lanka and was finally only interested in securing better salaries for its members (a laudable but somewhat narrow goal given the issues raised during its Trade Union action).
FUTA Strike 2012: A Broader Agenda?
In a letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa regarding the resumption of its trade union action, FUTA has outlined a number of serious and pertinent concerns about tertiary education in the country including the lack of funding for State Universities, politicization and political interference in the university system and the suppression of student activism. Once again it would appear that FUTA is calling for larger reforms to the tertiary education system and has not limited itself to discussions around salary anomalies alone.
The fact that FUTA has opted for this strategy from the outset is also a reflection of the evolution that took place during its last (failed) trade union action in 2011. This development is indeed laudable and should be appreciated. It is hoped that FUTA continues to maintain this broader commitment to the issues facing (and crippling) the higher education system in Sri Lanka and succeeds in defining the parameters of the debate in a broader context. However, the shift that this entails raises a number of interesting questions for FUTA.
FUTA’s Role in a Broader Agenda
One of the biggest questions that this shift raises is as to who the stakeholders in this process should be. Or to put it more succinctly who should speak for these stakeholders and what are the politics involved in doing so? When approached from this angle it becomes clear that FUTA is only one of many stakeholders whose voices should be heard viz. the current debates on the future of the higher education system in Sri Lanka. Just as much as lecturers play an important role in the universities, it is pertinent to recall that student unions, non-academic staff unions, and other groups that have not been organized on these lines including students and visiting lecturers, should all be important stakeholders in discussions on the future of the university. If FUTA is to succeed in broadening its agenda, then it must be willing to open itself up to the issues faced by other groups within the university system as well. In this context what is the role of FUTA as a spokesperson or actor calling for reform of the university system? A broader agenda for trade union action must involve the realization then that FUTA can and must play a wider role that is more of a facilitator than leader in these discussions. This is in spite of the fact that FUTA represents the academics within the system and therefore sit atop the hierarchy in the university.
It also requires FUTA to seriously think of what it really wants this trade union action to achieve. As an umbrella organization FUTA will have to grapple with concerns that its own voice will be lost and the interests of academics will be diluted in the process of achieving this broader agenda. It must therefore either decide to tackle these issues head on and convince its members of the need for this broader agenda from the outset. If it changes its mind like it did during the last trade union action, FUTA will find itself again struggling to be relevant and “awake.”
FUTA, Power Politics and Alliances
It might also help FUTA to be reflexive on their own notions of power and hierarchy within the system and ask itself questions for example at which points would FUTA be reluctant to share a stage with other unions (especially student unions) and what the power politics of this reluctance entails? FUTA may find itself grappling with the hierarchical nature of the university system. The conceptions of the exalted stature of the teacher within the university may well be threatened particularly by seeing student unions as being equal partners in a struggle rather than as students in a classroom. This may also require a serious reflection on the terms on which these alliances are made and who should decide on them. For example, in response to some of the questions posed in public discussions, some academics have strongly argued for a commitment from student unions to stop ragging as a prerequisite for an alliance. However, one wonders what commitments FUTA is willing to make on its part in exchange for this commitment from student unions. (This is not to say that ragging is good but to point out the politics through which alliances are built)
One way in which FUTA may be able to create a broader alliance is by putting in place mechanisms that could encourage this process. One example of this is the exploration of the possibility of FUTA adopting a resolution to support trade union action of other unions by not working on days when other strikes have been called, especially when relevant to the broader agenda outlined by FUTA. Another example of this could be a commitment to bettering pedagogy and moving away from archaic curriculums where possible in order to provide students with a higher quality education. While these may seem rather radical steps, they are suggested as examples of some of the thinking that FUTA would have to consider in order to pursue its commitment to a broader agenda.
The lack of media attention for the FUTA token strike on the 26th (also overshadowed by the student protest against the Malabe Medical College) suggests that FUTA will have to work hard to return to the levels of debate, attention and discussion that it generated during its last trade union action. While FUTA’s commitment to a broader agenda is laudable, it is important that the process and politics of this agenda be discussed and dealt with from the start. The failure to do so will see FUTA repeat its performance from last year and struggle even further to be a voice that can speak truth to power.