By Sumanasiri Liyanage –
Of the four trade union actions, the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) has been so far engaged in, in its about three decades of history, the one that came to conclusion last week was the first that ended with no tangible material results. On the other hand, the last trade union action was of great significance for two reasons. First, it was the first strike action by the university teachers. FUTA had resorted to different kinds of protests, namely resigning from voluntary positions that the university teachers held in normal situation. Secondly, extending its 2011 strategy of taking the issue of education reforms beyond the boundaries of the university to the general masses, FUTA this time highlighted more general issues of education reforms than the specific demands of its members. Hence FUTA was able to generate a broader discussion on the educational reforms that the country is badly in need of. Ending a TU action with no concrete results is not an uncommon thing in the trade union history since the trade union action means a struggle between two opposite forces with substantially different interests. Just because the TU action failed to secure concrete and tangible gains, it does not necessarily mean that it was a failure. Similarly, even it is a failure, it is not a ground for a discontent or disappointment if the union membership and its leaders are able to decode the reasons of the failure and take necessary actions not to repeat them in future trade union actions. So it is imperative that FUTA have a critical reflection on the past union actions. Why did it fail to win its demands notwithstanding the fact that it was the trade union action which received the participation and the support of more than 90% of the university teachers and generated support of the significant layer of the society? Was it because that some of the FUTA demands are not achievable in the prevailing economic and social context without far reaching changes? Was there a basic flaw in the frame of struggle? Can the failure be attributed to the fact that although the FUTA was able to build pressure through mass action, FUTA negotiation team had failed at the negotiation table? In my opinion, these are the issues FUTA should discuss and reflect on if it wants to continue as a trade union? Although I have my own views on the above issues, I do not intend to discuss them in this article. My intention here is to redraw the boundaries of the discussion on FUTA demand on 6% of GDP on education.
Fantasies are of great importance and useful in building social movements. It is interesting to note that the FUTA was able to fantasize the demand of 6% of the GDP on education especially among the Sri Lankan internet community that is growing. Keeping the demand at the level of fantasy during the time of trade union action might also have facilitated the trade union action. Nonetheless, in the post-strike phase, it is imperative to reread the demand in the light of the ideas that were flagged in the discussion. There were two criticisms of FUTA demand to which I intend to turn shortly.
1. Critique of the Economists and the FUTA’s failure to respond: The economists reacted negatively to the demand for 6% of GDP on education focusing on the demand’s practicality. They correctly pointed out that the state’s contribution to the GDP had greatly reduced with the introduction of neo-liberal economic policies since 1977. The total government expenditure as a proportion of the GDP has come down to 22 per cent in recent years. So, spending 6 per cent out of this total government expenditure, according to them, is not practically possible. This may be the reason why many economists attached to the department of economics, University of Colombo refused take part in the trade union action. The answer to this criticism of the side of FUTA was not satisfactory. FUTA argued that 6% can be spent if the government was ready to reduce defence expenditure substantially and/or curtail corruption and waste. This argument does not hold water. The main portion of the current defence expenditure is of recurrent nature. If the proposal for substantial reduction of it is not linked with decommissioning with alternative employment, the implementation of such a proposal would create so many new problems. So, in order materialize FUTA’s demand for 6 percent of GDP on education, the demand should be linked with the expansion of the public economy. In other words, it means a reversal of the 1977 neo-liberal economic policies. Without moving towards an economy that is substantially dominated by the public sector, 6 per cent is just an empty signifier. Only such an economy can provide adequate expenditure on education, health, public transport etc. Not allowing room for misunderstanding let me explain what I meant by public economy that is qualitatively different from the statist economy and/ private economy. Services such as health, education, public transport should not be allowed to be controlled either by state bureaucracy or by surplus-seeking capital. Having based on the past experience, it is necessary t design a new system of management for these sectors. FUTA’s demand would be meaningful if and only if it is linked with such far-reaching changes in the prevailing economic system.
2. Teachers would have learned from the students: In the course of the FUTA struggle, a clear difference emerged between the position of FUTA and that of the Inter-University Students Federation (IUSF). While FUTA stood for the defence of ‘state education’, IUSF had the slogan of defending ‘free education’. Is this mere a semantic difference? In my view, two demands are qualitatively different. FUTA’s position implies that it has no objection for the presence of private sector education controlled by the logic of surplus-seeking capital with the state education. Secondly, it also means the continuance of the present system as a system controlled by the state bureaucracy especially in school education. On the other hand, IUSF wanted to continue the free education system originally initiated by C. W. W. Kannangara. In Sri Lankan education discourse, the term widely used to denote public education system has been free education. Why did FUTA change it? No explanation was given. Although IUSF demand is not clear about the system of management of free education system or how the free education system should be freed from the state bureaucracy and put under a democratic control of the educationists, its demand at least emphasize the need of inversing the changes that are now clearly visible in the education system.
What I have said above on public education system can be equally applicable to other sectors like health that need to be freed from two dominant control mechanisms, namely, capitalist and statist. Humankind has come to a stage where it should discover new mechanisms to govern their lives.
*The writer is a co-coordinator of the Marx School, Colombo, Kandy and Negombo.