By Buddhima Padmasiri –
FUTA strike…… yes, this started as a trade union action but today it has penetrated the virtual boundaries in which it started, and has evolved to become a social movement in Sri Lanka. What is important about this phenomenon is that in the post-war Sri Lanka it has created a space to believe in peoples’ power: to believe that in present Sri Lanka there is a possibility for people to mobilize in passive resistance against unjust state control; to believe that despite personal gains and agenda’s people are willing to rise for the betterment of the future. This is where FUTA’s trade union action became a social movement. With “6% for education” it has managed to mobilize other trade unions, students and parents to fight with it for its cause.
Today the FUTA strike marks two months, three weeks and three days on strike. This trade union action is remarkable in its achievement of protraction in post-war Sri Lanka. The university academic staff is on strike and this is the third month the majority of them are going without wages/remuneration. This situation leads to numerous complexities; the question is whether FUTA has the viability to face these emerging complications as they go on. Like in a conflict with its prolonging, even in social movements there are alternative structures creating which could be for the personal or political gain of individuals or groups, from the ruling party at present or in the aftermath of the trade union action.
At present there is the Patriotic University Teachers’ Alliance (PUTA) which is countering the FUTA action with various claims. This is one of the many obstacles FUTA is challenged with but so far FUTA has faced them well. But what is clear at this moment is the emergence of a polarization, and quoting a colleague of mine “it is hard when you are at the receiving end”. While FUTA is getting stronger and larger with the public support they are getting from the outside, it has to look within to retain its members, the university academic staff. On the other hand, it also needs to ensure equal representation of all groups of academic and ‘academic support’ staff in universities which entail the instructors of English in the Arts faculties, demonstrators in the Science faculties and even the staff at similar capacities working in agricultural faculties etc. in their trade union action. Another reason for this is that at the present members of FUTA are not paid their salaries while the members of PUTA are.
FUTA also needs to be concerned about the changing nature of the social movement. The “6% of GDP for education” started off as a people’s movement initiated by FUTA. As it is a trade union it could also be identified in the broader context of the civil society movement as well as with the backing received from other civil societies. Not just the local academia, international scholars too have sent their support to FUTA. Civil society human rights organizations joined, along with other trade unions and have been supporting FUTA. To this end it has been a people’s movement. But with the rapid growth of this movement political parties too have lent their support to FUTA. This is a changing nature of the social movement which could raise challenges for FUTA. Even at the moment FUTA and its trade union action have been criticised by the pro-government academics as an attempt to destabilize the country with economic agendas of their own. With this new change one can predict that this lashing against FUTA will get worse in both amount and gravity. Also with the successes FUTA has obtained and with the government not being able to curtail this trade union action this is again predictable. Other than that, with the political parties volunteering support to the trade union action initiated by it, FUTA should be vigilant to not let those political parties use it and its activism for their political gain which could jeopardise the success of its action.
If we look at the current education system, it is a crisis on its own from the issue of the Grade Five scholarship exam- the Z-score to the curricula and the administration of the universities. This has mainly been a result of excessive politicising of the system. If 6% from the GDP is allocated to education and afterwards, if the same system is continued then that is a disappointment and an injustice for the future generations. So the 6% hike of allocation for education shouldn’t be FUTA’s ultimate goal, but its primary goal. If they manage to achieve this objective, there onwards they should start to change the education system in a proactive and beneficial way. If they continue to do it no-doubt FUTA will continue to obtain the backing of the public.
Other than these there is one more thing and that goes to the rest of the civil society. The civil society at large should take FUTA as an example in co-ordinating and initiating its activities. It should learn from FUTA on how to mobilize people and on how to pressurize the government to meet its demands. FUTA has attracted people to it and has also obtained legitimacy from the people. FUTA is more co-ordinated, in its trade union action and in its articulation of demands. It is because of this that FUTA has gone beyond UNIONISM to become a SOCIAL MOVEMENT.
*Buddhima Padmasiri- An Independent Researcher, Human Rights Activist and an Attorney-at-Law