Mona Unit on the JTA Sickout
Throughout the year-long public sector strike wave in Jamaica, the Jamaica Teachers Association (JTA) stands out for its commitment to rank-and-file members, and consistency in messaging. The JTA remains opposed to the Ministry of Finance's offer of several wage increase packages (now up to 26% over four years and a freeze on benefits), demanding wage deals that improve the poverty-level situation teachers face and can withstand currency fluctuations. In response to the disbursement of a rejected package, teachers conducted a three-day sickout from 12 March 2018. LANDS has closely followed the entire strike wave, maintaining a compilation of articles. But, the Mona Unit deemed it necessary to collect thoughts and draft an official position on this recent action and commentary since.
Mona Unit unanimously support the teachers’ goals. We believe the strike was too short, yet effectively warned the current Government and the IMF of what may happen if a resolution is not reached soon. In fact, the Ministry of Finance and all would-be strikebreakers should appreciate the reprieve after three days. Given over a year of delays on the part of the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), the teachers and the JTA have the recourse to resistance. In the event of new strikes, we hope to see greater organisation, higher turnout and practical unity and support coming from other trade unions, in both the public and private sectors.
This class struggle is not only between the JTA and the JLP. We must remember that the rush to push wage offers through exists in the context of IMF-led austerity measures. Both the IMF and JLP are willing to concede higher (nominal) wages as a compromise towards the larger commitment to slashing public spending: concretely laying off civil servants, reducing the proportion of public wages to 9% of GDP, and maintaining a 7% surplus. Whatever capital Jamaica attains from IMF loans are contingent on adherence to IMF policy. It is the common denominator here.
If the IMF succeeds, Jamaica will have a smaller public sector unable to negotiate its working conditions. The underhanded move of paying out rejected wages forces organised workers into worse conditions. Acceptance of the wages and freezes on benefits is tantamount surrender to state and capital. In fact, it is a violation of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) convention on collective bargaining. These teachers struggle from precarious positions and fight for access to decent housing, transportation. They also struggle to fund classroom material without having to take from poverty-level salaries.
With a leaner and weaker public sector, Jamaica's government is able to dictate harsher terms on all public workers, as each ministry and department competes internally and externally, and unions are forced to struggle for less than before. Obviously, a smaller public sector means a larger private sector, and it is mostly through private capital that stronger foreign firms interact with the Jamaican economy. So, we interpret the current behaviour of the Ministry of Finance as setting a dangerous precedent, establishing a protracted onslaught on labour and paving the way for more neocolonisation. Right now, resisting this means supporting the JTA and all militant workers throughout this cycle of struggle. Long term continuation of this resistance means finding local and regional development alternatives to the IMF, or at the very least taking greater control of investments, both foreign and national.
Mona members also addressed some misconceptions about the teachers and their industrial action. Of course, the timing before Grade Six Assessment Test (GSAT) and Caribbean Secondary Education Certification (CSEC) seems suspect. However, we do not believe that it was the intention of the teachers to disrupt revision and preparation. The three-day sickout was the result of months of stalling on the part of the JLP and dwindling support from other public sector unions over time. Of course, the JTA was not completely alone in its strike. The National Parent Teacher Association of Jamaica (NPTAJ) expressed its determination that parents generally supported the teachers’ action, and some of these parents on the west of the island volunteered their time.
Most pressing yet is the notion of the teachers’ struggle being a pro-PNP plot to destabilise the current administration. Such an allegation is not founded. The circumstances may point in one direction, but they must be taken in context. Where were these detractors over a year ago when the JTA started its negotiations? Where were they nearly four years ago when the PNP-led government announced wage freezes? At any rate, Mona Unit cannot let any suspected actions of the PNP result in teachers being held hostage in the partisan fray. They still struggle for their lives and livelihoods, and that is what must take precedence. We must never give into distractions or undue implications of betrayal or partisanship.
Mona Unit hopes that Jamaican teachers are victorious in their campaign and that the current government meets all of their demands. Never settle for 26%!
We hope for greater unity among public-sector unions and workers in the private sector to weaken the IMF and change the JLP government’s course. Defeat the imperialists!