Thursday, August 16, 2012

Panama Teachers Strike Ends

The Panama News:
Strike ends, conflict doesn't
by Eric Jackson

Back in 2006, a Torrijos administration that wasn't doing that well in the polls and was facing a "must win" referendum about which most of the public was apathetic changed the dynamic of the moment by picking a fight with the public school teachers. They "negotiated" an "agreement" with what was essentially a collection of paper organizations "led" by people loyal to the administration, then told the teachers' unions that had actual members that an agreement had been reached on a new contract and there would be no further negotiations. There followed a bitter strike that the teachers lost. Torrijos spent a lot of money on advertising, which tended to push anti-intellectual themes and paint teachers as these pampered elitists who were responsible for the deplorable state of education in this country. Considering that people aligned with the PRD old guard who are now getting trounced in internal party elections by Juan Carlos Navarro were busy looting the already underfunded public schools when that was going on, it was an impressive feat, even if within a matter of months the PRD's malaise returned to its previous state.

Nowadays Ricardo Martinelli has gathered almost all of the levers of governmental power into his own hands but for more than a year now polls have shown that Cambio Democratico would get perhaps 20 percent of the vote in a national election, with the ruling party's popularity dipping well below that number depending on the news of the moment. All indications are that he wants to copy a page out of the previous administration's playbook to enhance his power and popularity.

Minister of Education Lucy Molinar refuses to negotiate with teachers under any circumstances. Under this administration there is no attempt to divide, or to create any puppet organization. Molinar just announces what wages and working conditions will be, and when Panama is embarrassed on international tests, announces that this country will no longer participate in them. A TV show host rather than an educator or administrator, and a member of the right-wing Catholic order Opus Dei who was educated in the most conservative Chilean university at the height of dictator Augusto Pinochet's power, she and the Martinelli administration have moved toward eliminating the teaching of civics, history and Panamanian culture, in favor of public schools that train unskilled laborers who can read the instruction manual for a weed whacker or handle a cash register. And are there parents' representatives who object? They are removed, or are never recognized in the first place.

The teachers' unions have not waged an all-out strike to resolve this situation because they don't think that they could win one. There have been a number of small strikes, mostly local in nature, over specific issues. There has been a steady stream of teacher complaints and criticism of Molinar. But the unions have avoided a big battle that they are not sure they can win.

So what does the government do? It removes parent representative Antonio Castillo. It fires several teachers without the due processes provided by law. Still no strike. It fires Andrés Rodríguez, leader of the ASOPROF teachers' union. It opens up a disciplinary process against Yadira Pino, leader of the AEVE teachers' union. Molinar refuses to meet with the teachers.

Thus, a strike that started in Colon, where Rodríguez has taught art at Colegio Abel Bravo for more than 30 years, and then a few days later turned into a nationwide strike that closed down most of the public schools and disrupted the functions of the rest. More than 80 percent of the teachers walked out, and the strike grew as it progressed.

But so did the agitation against the strike, by business groups, by some parents' groups, in vitriolic government radio appeals, in comments by the first lady and in pronouncements by the Catholic Church. The church, however, recognized that there is a problem that is not just with the teachers and as it called for the schools to reopen it also called upon the government to negotiate in good faith.

Under church mediation, the teachers went back to work on August 14, after a four-day national strike. The Education Ministry agreed to review the ouster of the parents representative and all but one of the teachers. The Rodríguez firing was referred to a special committee on which it appears that the Catholic Church will have the deciding vote, except that the government may in the end just ignore the committee.

Nothing is settled. The teachers haven't won any substantive demands. The government didn't get a victory it can boast about. There are some review processes but teachers and the ministry are not negotiating in any usual sense of the concept. Molinar has shown her authority, and the teachers unions have shown their ability to shut down the schools. Look for more rounds to be fought before this administration ends.

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