Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The impending teachers' strike

A THREE-DAY nationwide warning strike being proposed by the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT), to begin tomorrow, can only prove disruptive particularly now that secondary school students across the country are sitting for the National Examination Council (NECO) exams. The strike action which has been endorsed by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) is in protest against the Federal Government's alleged failure to implement the Teachers' Salary Scale (TSS) which was agreed upon by the NUT and the Federal Government in 1991.

According to Comrade Mike Olukoya, NUT Chairman, Western zone, although the Abacha administration later approved the TSS after a negotiated agreement, 'successive governments had frustrated its implementation'. As a last resort therefore, the NUT has decided to embark on a three-day warning strike as a prelude to what it calls 'the mother of all strikes' which may be declared at the end of a 21-day ultimatum. This is scary to say the least.

Members of the NUT argue that academic and non-academic workers in the university system and medical workers respectively enjoy special salary scales. They do not see why their case should be different. The TSS has been in contention since 1991. After a memo was submitted to the Federal Minister of Education in that year, the NUT went on a four-week strike. After the strike, there was a duly signed Memorandum of Understanding between the government and the NUT. But nothing concrete came out of it. In 1995, the teachers resumed their protest. The Federal Government responded by setting up an inter-ministerial committee to work out the modalities for the implementation of the agreement. Apparently, this also did not produce any lasting result. It is against this background that the teachers have now decided to go on strike.

The implications are foreseeable. The NLC President, Abdulwaheed Omar had declared that "with effect from Wednesday June 11, 2008, all public primary and secondary, technical, science as well as unity schools all over the country will be shut down, as teachers will not be on duty. There will be no teaching or invigilation both internal and external examinations. The National Examinations Council is particularly urged to take note and reschedule the on-going examinations. Organised labour at national and state levels and other civil society organisations will support the NUT to make the strike effective..."

As usual once there is a strike, the school system, which is already in dire straits, will be paralysed. The truth is that teachers in public schools across the country are not happy with their lot. They readily point to such challenges as poor salary scale, inadequate facilities, and the big gap in conditions of service between the average teacher and his counterpart in other sectors, which makes frustration inevitable.

The effect is that for the most part, the brightest minds are not attracted to the education sector, instead the profession is full of persons who regard teaching as a last resort or as a stop-gap measure in their lives. An education sector that is dominated by persons who have grudgingly taken to the profession cannot provide the kind of training for the young that the nation requires. By professionalising the teaching profession and making working conditions attractive, however, the nation would be investing in the future of the kids of this country.

It is puzzling that although education is in the concurrent list, with primary education under the purview of Local Governments, negotiations in the present matter have been between the NUT and the Federal Government. Where do the State Governments come in? Can the proposed Teachers Salary Scale which the teachers are referring to be binding on all tiers of government? Is the Federal Government competent according to the laws of the land to impose a salary structure on the federating states? Was the TSS adopted and approved by the States' Executive Councils or by the National Assembly and the States' Houses of Assembly for the purposes of appropriation? Were the states and the local councils party to the original negotiations?

There seems to be total confusion over the relationship between the Federal Government and the states, and the definition of responsibilities, in this, as in other matters. Oftentimes, State Governments also treat Local Governments as appendages. Not every transaction among the tiers of government is transparent. For example, in the UBE programme some state governments withheld and misappropriated funds meant for the local councils. Corruption therefore is a part of the problem; the abuse of the federal principle is another issue.

In pressing their case in the matter of the Teachers' Salary Scale, members of the NUT must be clear in their minds which tier of government they are addressing. Teachers in Federal Government-owned schools may direct their complaints to the Federal Government but those in state-owned schools are employees of the state government and not the Federal Government. This distinction is essential; for too often, the principle of federalism is sacrificed on the altar of expediency by governments and groups in civil society.

Nevertheless, we urge dialogue. Education is too sensitive and important to be subjected to the vagaries of labour issues. Whatever government is responsible at any level, the issue is that education should be a social service and treated as a basic right. Every effort should be made to encourage broad access to education. A disgruntled teaching work force cannot deliver on the projected goal of education for all under the Millennium Development Goals. The "mother of all strikes" being proposed by the teachers may result in a nationwide agitation by labour as has been threatened. This should not be allowed to happen.

Governments at all levels should intervene quickly and engage the teachers in dialogue or fresh negotiations, in accordance with due process. If there are grey areas, these should be quickly clarified. And if agreements had been reached in the past, there should be a way of honouring them by respecting the rights of all stakeholders. The already beleaguered public school system should not be subjected to further disruptions.