“This is not a strike … only a demonstration … just showing them what it is that we can do.”
BELMOPAN, Wed. Nov. 7, 2018– In the early Wednesday morning here, a constant stream of lime-green T-shirts moved along the Ring Road with chants of “Solidarity forever,” as members of Belize’s most powerful and organized trade union, the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU), marched towards the Belmopan’s Civic Center. The teachers were gathering for a rally during which they forcefully articulated their demands for Proposition 22 and the other unfinished business in their negotiations with the Government of Belize.
Apart from Proposition 22, the unfinished business includes pensions for teachers from church-managed schools and the withholding of commuting allowances for teachers.
Today was the deadline for the BNTU to make its case to the District Education Council, but instead the union flexed its muscle in a massive show of force which may have been triggered by remarks made by Minister of Education Patrick Faber and Prime Minister Dean Barrow at the Prime Minister’s press conference last week Monday.
Senator Elena Smith, the BNTU National President, led the teachers’ parade to the Belmopan Civic Center, along with BNTU Past President, Luke Palacio. The BNTU’s massive show of force was made up of teachers from all 6 Districts of Belize. Some of the teachers complained that many of their buses were unnecessarily stopped and delayed at police checkpoints along the various highways across the country.
One teacher for Belize City told our newspaper that in addition to being stopped at a police checkpoint in Hattieville, a Belize Defence Force soldier used his cell phone to video them in their bus.
Undeterred by the sweltering Belmopan morning heat, the last of the teachers marched on the crowded Civic Center, which only had standing room. Outside, apart from the sea of lime-green T-shirts, there were several Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) parliamentarians, including the Leader of the Opposition, Hon. John Briceño; the Leader of the Belize Progressive Party (BPP), Patrick Rogers; and BPP Deputy Leader and Leader of the Belize Territorial Volunteers, Wil Maheia.
Inside the Civic Center, things were beginning to heat up as the BNTU leaders were joined at the head table by the President of the Christian Workers Union (CWU), Evan “Mose” Hyde, who was one of several guest speakers.
In his remarks to the teachers, Hyde reminded them that the BNTU was very supportive of his CWU in its recent negotiations with the Port of Belize Limited.
“I think that being involved with union work for the past months, gives you a unique perspective on why it is the BNTU feels disrespected. You cannot tolerate being told outright, condescendingly and arrogantly, that a matter is not to be negotiated. I believe on principle alone, a union has to respond to that, and I think that all unions have that consciousness and that’s why I am out here and some of my members have joined me as well,” Hyde said.
Hyde said that the BNTU has every right to up the ante in response to the dictatorial action on the part of the Minister of Education.
Hon. Briceño, when he was asked why he found it necessary to come to the BNTU rally, told our newspaper that he supports the BNTU and its teachers one hundred percent, because, “I come from a family of teachers. My mother was a teacher, my father was a teacher, my wife is a teacher and the teachers are the bedrock of this country, and in any righteous cause, we need to show our full one hundred percent support for the teachers,” Briceno said.
BNTU President, Hon. Elena Smith, explained that the government kept moving the goal post, but the teachers would stand strong for what they believe in.
Hon. Smith said, “There are some people and I don’t want to go to Zacchaeus days, but there are some people in this land who believe that they have power and that their power will remain with them forever. That is not so. Every one of us we have a time and we have a purpose and when your purpose and when your time is up – you gotta go … if we believe that you must go before your time – you bet the cook, you are going to go.”
“Every time we come to these clashes, we would have tried everything we could to ensure that we get meetings together, that we get movement on these issues, and when we come to this, it is because there is no other choice for us. So when you hear people talking out there that teachers like to strike – they better not wait for us to strike, because this is not a strike right now. This is only a demonstration, and you know what demonstration means, it’s a way to show right. So right now we are just showing them what it is that we can do,” Hon. Smith said.
“When that time comes for us to strike, whoever is in the way – we don’t care who it is – you are in the way, you are going to get it!”
Hon. Smith discussed the hardship issue, which is another sticking point that was referenced by the Minister of Education when he remarked about it at the Prime Minister’s press conference.
“For us the hardship matter is one of the main ones, and that is where the schools are being re-categorized and some schools are being taken off the list. Some are being added on to the list, some are being downgraded, and so teachers who are in a higher category are now moved down to a lower category, and that means that these teachers then would be getting less monies that they would have normally be getting.”
“The fight today is not for money. Let me make that very clear. We are not asking for an increase in any allowance; we are asking that we be called to the table as the bargaining agent for teachers for us to discuss and finalize these schools being categorized.”
“The other issue is that of Proposal 22, which is a part of our negotiation. You heard the Minister saying that that matter is off the table. It was no longer a live issue. We kept saying that that matter was still on the table and we would not give it up, and as you’ve heard we’ve got a letter from the prime minister and he is agreeing that we should meet and discuss the matter…,” Hon. Smith said.
As the 2:00 p.m. hour approached and the life of the permit the BNTU had gotten from the Belmopan police to hold the rally was about to expire, the teachers began to file out of the Civic Center and a good number of them headed for the steps of the National Assembly, where they sang the National Anthem before peacefully dispersing to catch their buses.
We caught up with Hon. Smith on the steps of the National Assembly and asked her what her feeling about the day’s event was.
“Well, I am feeling quite happy with the turnout. As you know, I was not able to see the entire length of the parade, but I was told that we had more teachers today than the last time we were here,” Hon. Smith replied.
She explained that the union would do a post-mortem of today’s event and then depending on how the negotiations progress, “We will take it from there.”
Hon. Smith also weighed in on the fact that some school managers have already written letters to teachers threatening to deduct the day’s salary for their attendance at the BNTU rally.