Sir, Please Treat us Kindly

by Sumanasiri Liyanage

(May 23, Kandy, Sri Lanka Guardian) The theme song of a popular Sri Lankan film, Kalu Diya Dahara, (A column of Black water) in the 1970s is about colonial Sri Lanka. It has depicted the tragedy of socially and ethnically marginalized, economically exploited and politically suppressed workers in rural/estate Sri Lanka. Although workers pleaded with employers not only for a living wage but also for a reasonable level of dignity and recognition, authorities with the help of the suppressive state machine did everything to crush the workers’ collective action. The university teachers are in many ways different almost totally from the downtrodden social layers depicted in the film. They do not envision that they are marginalized. Rather, they believe that they are centrally located in the sphere of Sri Lankan academia. They value independence and do not want them to be exploited by their employers. And finally they abhor politics as it is practised in Sri Lanka. When their dignity is violated and their place in society is downgraded, university teachers do not plead; but they are determined to win their place. The collective action of university teachers that began on May 9 is essentially to protect their dignity that has been damaged by broken promises and degrading statements.

Hegemonic classes invariably fear collective action as they tend to project that every collective social movement has an embryo that would sooner or later develop into a social revolution. Let me bracket that hypothesis for a moment and focus on a totally different question, namely, what would be the danger in crushing collective social action/s? Self-interests and desires are embodied in collective social action, but at the same time collective social action transcends individual desires and interests. Hence the formation of collectivity entails some kind of imposition of self-limit and control. Individuals refrain from engaging in arbitrary action assuming, even in rational social action theory, that the benefits that they gain through collective social action outweighs the cost of participating in them. ‘Crowd’ and social collective action are qualitatively different in the sense that the ‘crowd’ in many instances does not entail this self-limiting that is a quintessential characteristic of the collective social action. Secondly, collective social action is not a summation of individual action. While individual action incorporates individual desires, interests, and sometimes, anger, social collective action transcends then and includes norms, values and objectives of higher order. Let me give an example. University teachers want a salary that reflects their level of training and capacity. University demands high level of academic training and continuous research. However, when they collectivised this demand, they, while not negating its individual demand, put them on a broader canvass, a future of higher education and the state university system in Sri Lanka. That is how the dialectic of self and collective operates in real practice as well as in theory.

Reflection on the history of trade union actions in Sri Lanka in the past five decades will reveal that the university teachers belong to a social collective that rarely resort to trade union action. The current trade action is the first during the past 15 years. However, they informed the relevant authorities including the President that there was a problem and it should be addressed if the government would like to preserve the university system from the danger of ‘brain drain’ internally and externally. In the early 2000, some university teachers left the university and joined the private sector. Many left the country or refused to return when they went abroad on leave. Hence the university system has a real problem of recruiting best graduates and keeping the middle-aged trained academics within the system. Finding a Treasury Secretary or a Central Bank Governor may be relatively easier than producing a good academic. So the government should seriously consider the gravity of this issue. Nonetheless, unlike the previous governments, the present government appears to deal with this issue following the mechanisms and methods that it deployed in countering the LTTE threat. The Minister of Higher Education and the Chairman of University Grants Commission appear to have put on military boots. It is appropriate to highlight that ours is small community and our trade union has a membership not exceeding 5,000 members. We are well aware of the fact that the government does not need multi-barrel rocket launchers to crush this union action. However, I would like to note that the government should be aware the ramification of such a strategy. One interesting case to note about the present trade union action of the university teachers is that the most active leaders of it are attached to engineering and science-based faculties.

I have argued above why collective social actions are superior to individual actions. Defeating collective actions through militarised means (not necessarily using arms and ammunition) would force the individual members of the community to resort to individual actions. These days, I have been travelling with young academics of the University of Peradeniya to Colombo to attend weekly ex-co meetings of FUTA. On our way to Colombo, we talk about the future of the trade union actions, government’s response, irregular and illegal circulars issued by the UGC Chairman and many subjects associated with higher education in Sri Lanka. One day I posed them a question, "Suppose that the government refuses to grant our demands in spite of this trade union action. In such a situation, what future actions we should take?’ Knowing well their determination and commitment, I expected that they would suggest a continuous all out strike. But they did not come up with the proposal of an all-out strike making the university system totally dysfunctional. A young and promising academic who is quite well known for her brilliance came up with totally unconventional suggestion: "No sir, we should resign from our respective posts en masse". I was astonished and was not able to speak for a while. "Let them find new teachers. We will find new jobs that are more remunerative" she added. I am sure that those in the van in which we travelled can easily go for such an unconventional and radical decision. However, I began to envision a scenario of higher education and our university system, if these young academics resort to an action of that nature. The consequences would not be something that a country can bear.

I am the oldest person in the current FUTA leadership. I have witnessed the trade union actions by FUTA in 1992 and 1996. If the government does not want to resolve this issue through negotiations by blindly accepting the views of the Treasury Secretary, the university system and the country would definitely lose its best scientists, engineers and medical people who cannot be replaced easily. If the government adopts at least pragmatic perspective taking into consideration its own survival, it should perceive that listening to collective action is always beneficial to the country and its posterity.

( The writer teaches Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya. He can be reached at: )

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