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Education policy and FUTA’s mandate: some thoughts

by Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda, Member AFTA, University of Colombo
Some people have made an argument that FUTA has exceeded the mandate of a trade union when it demands the government to allocate 6% of the GDP to education. This argument emanates from the position that trade unions have no business with government’s fiscal policy. According to the advocates of this position, deciding priorities and policies of allocating government expenditure is entirely the job of the government and its policy-making officials.
This essay is only supplementary to the excellent response earlier circulated by Shamala Kumar of Peradeniya.
To begin with, the argument of FUTA exceeding its mandate emanates from a narrow, minimalist, and sorry to say, outdated, understanding of trade unionism. Although trade unions have often focused their struggles on wage demands, trade unionism in general has not been confined to wage-related demands alone. Those who have the slightest understanding of the history of trade unionism in Sri Lanka would know that even during the colonial times, Sri Lanka’s trade unions combined economic demands with social and political demands as well. It is wrong to suggest that trade unionism by definition is concerned exclusively and only on wage demands.
What the critics of FUTA’s demand for increased allocation of government expenditure on public education want from FUTA is to confine its concerns to a narrow and minimalist framework. But, neither the FUTA nor many of the trade unions in Sri Lanka or elsewhere are minimalist in their orientation, agendas and demands.
This wage-related minimalism in trade union agenda is a position advocated at present in Sri Lanka by two groups of FUTA critics. The first group represents the interests and policies of the government and the Ministry of Higher Education. The second group consists mostly of economists who appear to share the view that fiscal policy decisions are the exclusive prerogative of the economists at the Treasury, and not the lesser mortals, the proletariat, organised in trade unions. The latter position gives rise to the wrong notion that ‘economists and the Treasury know best.’
The demand by the FUTA as well as well as FUTA’s responses to its critics debunks this myth of exclusive privilege of policy-making monopoly in allocating government expenditure that some economists seem to accord to the Treasury, without listening to what the society, the people, the citizens, and the so-called stakeholders have to say. In a way, it reflects a specific culture of policy-making that has been advanced in Sri Lanka and many developing countries under neo-liberal economic reforms. As many critical studies of policy making under globalization, structural adjustment programmes and neo-liberal reforms show, economic policy making has now been reduced to a small group of an exclusive elite whose members are the country’s President or the Prime Minister, Finance or Economic Affairs Minister, the Treasury Secretary, the resident representatives of the World Bank and the IMF, and a few highly-paid expatriate or self-exiled policy consultants. The majority of this group are unelected people, who are not accountable to the people. Actually, one of the most undemocratic consequences of this development for governance is that neither Parliament elected by the people nor the Cabinet of Ministers consisting of people’s representatives has any serious say in public policy-making. They can only shout in anger when they do not get enough money for their ministries! That is why our Parliament and the Cabinet have been reduced to what they are today. In fact, one major indirect implication of the FUTA demand is for the Cabinet and Parliament to retrieve their right to decide priorities of public expenditure allocations in a manner that serves the people of the country, their electors, not the agenda of a small group of economists converted to the neo-liberal ideology.
It is also necessary for our critics and for us also to recognise that wage and economic demands of trade unions are integrally linked to public policy, especially in a context where our country is in a period of rapid policy change. That is precisely why workers in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone opposed the pension reform bill and organised demonstrations to show that opposition. It was an open challenge to government policy and it reflected the fact that economic welfare of the labour cannot be detached from the policy decisions of the government. When public sector unions opposed privatisation, they were challenging government policy. When the FUTA is asking to allocate 6% of the GDP to education, it is demanding policy reforms that directly affect their wage demands as well. In Sri Lanka, many trade unions have now realised that their wage and service conditions and government policies are so intertwined that improvement in the first calls for re-orientation of the second.
Those who know about trade union politics also know that advancing wage demands alone by trade unions creates a paradoxical challenge in which the wage demands benefit only its members, not the society at large. This is a problem that has been debated in the trade union movement in the world extensively, even in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Sri Lanka, employers and governments have always resorted to the tactic of branding wage demands of trade unions as having been motivated by the selfish interests of the members. This, in fact, happened during the first phase of the FUTA struggle. When a union broadens its concerns and links itself with issues of public interests that transcends the so-called selfish interests of its members, that union is accused of going beyond its mandate!
Moreover, the minimalist construction of the FUTA mandate by its critics is also a position that refuses to consider FUTA as a stakeholder in education in the country. It considers trade unions merely as organisations of wage-slaves that should not exceed their wage-labour mandate. This is actually a colonial as well as neo-liberal attitude to trade unions. It is colonial because, during colonialism, no trade union or a citizens’ organisation was expected to challenge the state, state policy or state officials. ‘Subjects’ did not have the right to challenge the rulers. They had to fight for that right. It is neo-liberal because the neo-liberal, as well as classical-liberal, ideology does not expect the citizens to be active participants in the political or policy process, except as passive individual citizens or minimally active consumers. It is social democracy that took trade unionism beyond these narrow confines and made trade unions active agents of social, political and policy change. Most of the trade unions in Sri Lanka have been nurtured in this social democratic tradition.
And it is sad that this colonial, outdated and hierarchical attitude to trade unionism is now being propagated by some of our own colleagues in the universities, some of whom are members of our own unions. May be the FUTA should organise a short course on trade unionism – Trade Union Politics 1101 –for its members who still operate on the colonial understanding of trade unions. In that course, some readings on new trends in trade union politics globally could be easily distributed for the benefit of all.
The role of trade unions as a stakeholder of public policy is a key principle that the FUTA highlights in the present phase of its struggle. This is a task that FUTA should continue to uphold as within its trade union mandate.
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