KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – Teachers here are preparing to march on this city today in commemoration of a similar event in 1975 that saw many of the nation’s educators tear-gassed and imprisoned.
“The main purpose of our solidarity march and … is to highlight the struggles of the Union of the past, the struggles of our forerunner, what they went through so that we now … can enjoy some of the comforts that we are now enjoying,” Teachers’ Union President Ronald Clarke said of the annual event that has seem dwindling attendance over the years
He also said that today’s march would also be in solidarity with teachers Elvis Daniel, Ken Johnson, and Addison “Bash” Thomas, who were not rehired after they contested and lost in the December 2010 election for the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP).
The union has been at loggerheads with the Dr. Ralph Gonsalves Unity Labour Party (ULP) over the collective agreement his government signed with the group in 2005.
It was later said that a section, which should have allowed teacher to take leave of absence to contest elections and return to the classroom if they lost, was unconstitutional.
The three NDP teachers, had to resign in order to contest the elections because of this provision, which Gonsalves later described as “aspirational”.
Housing Minister and former education minister Clayton Burgin, who along with Gonsalves was among the government’s signatories to the agreement, has said that the teachers should not be rehired, claiming that they abandoned their students.
But Clarke noted that today’s march is not in any industrial action, a protest, or a demonstration.
He said the union wants teachers to remember always that the 1975 struggles played a pivotal role in the growth and recognition of the union as a trade union.
“… and as such we want to ensure that those … benefits we earned through those struggles are maintained,” he said.
But the situation concerning the three NDP teachers threatens to turn today’s march into a political event. Radio talk show host Matthew Thomas, widely regarded as an NDP supporter, said in his programme this week that NDP supporters should feel free to wear their yellow party t-shirts to the event.
His co-host, Junior Bacchus, advocated wearing red, the ‘solidarity colour” – which is also the colour of the ULP.
And NDP Vice-President St. Clair Leacock said last night that the march is “a political event” and not a “church service” or a “funeral”.
Leacock, who is also Member of Parliament for Central Kingstown, said that the march today, was born out of the “political struggles” of 1975.
He further said that NDP supporters would march in solidarity with Daniel, Johnson, and Thomas.
Leacock said that most of the people who will attend this afternoon’s march would be those mobilized by the NDP but added that civil society representatives are also likely to attend.
“We don’t have to apologies for that. There is no shame in that and that is not a kidnap, hijack or masquerade of our intentions,” he said.
“To assume everyone who will be there in celebration of a 35-year celebration is to be an ostrich and bury your head in the sand,” he said, noting that most Vincentians are younger than 35.
The union this week said there were entities that were trying to hijack the march but did not say who they were.
Supporters of the ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP) have accused the NDP of being opportunistic and wanting to latch on to the march for partisan political reasons.