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Saturday 25 August 2012

FUTA trade union action – past and present

I have to postpone the discussion on “The existence of objects” in order to write on FUTA trade union action, that has been going on for some time.

FUTA stands for the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations and it was established in the eighties by some of us who were in the Universities at that time. There had been a University Teachers’ Associations Federation prior to that but it had not been functioning due to some reason or other. I was one of the persons associated with drafting the constitution of the FUTA, and the secretary of the Federation from its inception until I became the President in the late eighties following Prof. W. S. Karunaratne, Mr. W. B. Dorakumbura and Prof. O. W. Jayaratne. One of the first tasks we had to face was to convince the authorities that they should have discussions with FUTA. Prof. S. Kalpage who was then the Chairman of the UGC as well as the Secretary to the Ministry of Higher education with the President J R Jayawardane as the minister refused to talk to FUTA claiming that FUTA was not registered as a trade union in the Ministry of Labour. We argued that FUTA was a federation of trade unions and as such it was only necessary that the member unions of FUTA should be registered as trade unions. Finally probably after consulting the Ministry of Labour, Prof. Kalpage sent an officer of the UGC to our home in the night of one day to convey the message that FUTA could meet the UGC during the course of the same week. It was the first “win” of the FUTA and we had better success when FUTA as a result of trade union action in the form of a strike won a substantial salary increase in 1993 under my leadership.

It has to be mentioned that I had been interdicted in November 1992 and dismissed in April 1993 by the University of Colombo and as such I was not a member of any of the trade unions in the University of Colombo, and thus I was not representing any trade union in FUTA after 23rd April 1993. Fortunately the trade union Act and the English Instructors’ Union came to my rescue, and I was elected by the English Instructors not only as one of the two outside members but also as their representative to FUTA, amidst objections from some University Teachers’ Associations. By this time Mr. A.C.S. Hameed whom I loved to negotiate with had become the Minister of Higher Education under President Premadasa, and Prof. Arjuna Aluwihare the affable intellectual was the Chairman of the UGC. We had a very good team of negotiators representing FUTA and we were very logical and consistent in our negotiations, and never wavered as we had thought about our demands in detail. We had no difficulty in justifying our demands and I came to know the minister very well during the years of negotiations. I remember that all the negotiations with the minister and the UGC were cordial except on one occasion when Prof. Aluwihare was abroad. The UGC after years of negotiations, and trade union action by FUTA refused to come to a settlement and we threatened to walk out from negotiations and said that we would only have negotiations with the minster who was much more logical than some academics on the other side of the table. The UGC had to give in and the academics won a very substantial salary increase.

It is to the credit of the minister and the chairman of the UGC that they did not make a fuss of having me as the President of FUTA even after I had been dismissed from the University of Colombo. They understood the trade union act but unfortunately some academics including some Vic Chancellors did not like my face. There were obstacles to have meetings of the executive committee of FUTA as the President of the Federation was debarred from entering the premises of the University of Colombo, which was the official head quarters of FUTA. FUTA was grateful to Prof. Aluwihare who once gave us permission to use the Board Room of the UGC to have our meetings when he came to know that we had to have our meetings under the Mara trees on the sides of the Kumarathunga Munidadsa Mawatha. It has to be acknowledged that the government never had any ad hoc meetings with FUTA, as we negotiated only with the Minster of Higher Education and/or the UGC. No minister other than the minister of higher education was involved in any of the discussions and we would not have allowed any other minister to bypass the minister of higher education. Certainly henchmen of other ministers had no say in the discussions whether they were academics or not. I am sure that President Premadasa was aware of what was going on though he did not have any meetings with FUTA. The only meeting he had with FUTA was in connection with reopening of the universities after the long closure of the Universities due to the JVP activities. He invited me as the Secretary of FUTA at that time to Sucharitha Mandiraya around 10.00 pm, not a very good time to visit Sucharitha Mandiraya then, and wanted to know what my proposals were in regard of opening universities. He agreed to all my proposals and I had to go to Sucharitha Mandiraya again on the following day at the same not so auspices time to vet the cabinet paper that had been prepared along the lines I had suggested. Though I was an opponent of the government the President had no misgivings in consulting the Secretary of FUTA on one of the most acute problems the government had to face at that time. On my part I was representing FUTA, and I never thought of my personal political views in helping the government to find a solution to the problems. It has to be mentioned that among others North Colombo Medical College became the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Kelaniya and the University teachers and the non academics were given a back log clearance allowance as a result of those mid night discussions at Sucharitha. The FUTA at that time did not consider the University Academics to be a special category and even during the 1992/93 trade union struggle cooperated with the non academic trade unions to win a salary increase. The officials of FUTA had discussions with the trade unions of the non academics and there was a good understanding between the two parties. It has to be emphasized that my dismissal from the University of Colombo had nothing to do with my opposition to the government personally, and I am aware that the minster did not like the decision of the council of the University of Colombo to sack me, though he did not intervene to reverse it.

FUTA which is the umbrella organization of the University Teachers’ Associations in the country is not merely a trade union. It has to play an advisory role and I blame the government as well as the FUTA for not having discussions on the Z score problem. Even though FUTA is involved with a trade union struggle the government and FUTA should have discussed this problem as it affects the lives of innocent students whose parents have sleepless nights over the future of the children. Unlike the political parties the FUTA should have thought of the problem from a national point of view, in the spirit of its constitution. The GCE (A/L) examination 2012 has already begun without many students who sat the examination in 2011 having an idea as to whether they could enter the Universities or not.

Now let us discuss the present trade union struggle of the FUTA. It is unfortunate that FUTA is not consistent with its demands, and have not thought about them in detail. Even schoolboy debaters argue better and I do not find them to be well prepared. It appears that the FUTA changes its emphasis on the demands from time to time shifting their priorities. As an individual I like Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri, the present President of FUTA whom I know from his student days at the University of Colombo. However, there appear to be many spokespersons for FUTA who do not speak in unison. In a sense it is not much different from the government but the latter in the final analysis is controlled by President Mahinda Rajapakse. Recently the Chinthana Parshadaya of which I am the secretary organized a conference (sammanthranaya) on the Z score and University teachers’ trade union struggle. We invited several stalwarts of FUTA but they did not accept our invitation claiming that the invitation should go to FUTA and not to individuals. We acceded and FUTA nominated its President Dr. Nirmal Devasiri. However, at the conference he spoke as Dr. Devasiri the individual and not as the President of FUTA. He went on to speak on the crisis of education in a very general way without much reference to the demands of FUTA, claiming that they were only details. However, the same day at the same place in the morning FUTA had had a press conference together with some other trade unions including the Guru Sangamaya that was instrumental in politicizing the Z score issue, and trying to use it against the relevant ministers and the government in general mainly over the 6% issue. In spite of that at our meeting Dr. Nirmal Devasiri did not emphasize the 6% as they seem to have lost the thrust of the argument. The FUTA has a confused idea on the calculation of the 6% of the GDP, and FUTA is now on a sticky wicket as a result. (To be continued)

Copyright Prof. Nalin De Silva