The ongoing trade union action by the Federation of the University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) has drawn the attention of the entire nation. Cutting across the ethnic boundaries which have hitherto divided them on many issues of national importance, especially the minority question, the academic staff of the universities in the North and East have joined hands with their counterparts in the South in a common struggle for pay hike. Reports from the different universities in the country inform us that the resignation of academic staff from voluntary positions is gathering momentum day after day with more and more academics and teachers’ unions coming out in support of the trade union action initiated by the FUTA.

Privatization of higher education in Sri Lanka is a cause for concern for students coming from underprivileged background. Free education at both secondary and tertiary levels has played a pivotal role in increasing the living standards of low-income families. In spite of its low per-capita income, Sri Lanka’s Physical Quality of Life Index is nearly as high as that of the developed world owing to the availability of free education and free health care services to all citizens. The trade union action that the FUTA has embarked on coincides with the crucial move made by the government to establish private universities in Sri Lanka. While the government is preparing to allow the establishment of private universities, students from disadvantaged sections of the community continue to regard the state-run universities as places that ensure their upward social and economic mobility. Private universities might entice the teaching staff of state-run universities sooner or later by offering them attractive salary packages. If the demands of the academic community of the state universities are not addressed in a sensible way, students who come from not-so-affluent families may have to pursue their higher education at state-run universities under academics of low caliber disqualified by private universities or deemed unfit for teaching at private universities. In the end, the government’s persistent refusal to increase the salaries of the teaching staff at the country’s state universities may put the common man’s children at the risk of losing access to quality education. As we are expecting the establishment of private universities at any moment, failing to meet the demands of the academics will cause a situation of “inter-sectoral/intra-state brain-drain” which would adversely affect the future and aspirations of the poor of this country. Though I do not see this trade union action as one that stems from a larger concern for the future of the educational opportunities for indigent students or the poor citizenry of this country, we need to transform this action into a significant component of a political program to contest the haphazard neo-liberal policies of the present regime such as privatization of higher education.

In the context of escalating cost of living, the salary paid to the academics employed at the state-run universities is not adequate to cover their routine expenditure. We should be mindful of the fact that an academic utilizes her salary not only to fulfill her daily needs, but she also invests part of it in her research and higher educational ventures. Given the lack of funding for research and higher education outside Sri Lanka, the salary paid to an academic is an important source of human resource of development in the university system, which, in turn, becomes a source of national development. If the present salary is barely sufficient to meet one’s day-to-day expenses, how can an academic develop her research skills or present her research at international conferences which charge exorbitant amounts of money as registration fee, let alone the travel expenses the academic has to bear?

Teaching at a university is not a walk in the park, though the lack of commitment of some in the academia towards teaching and research has regrettably produced a repugnant image of university academics. Teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students involves rigorous preparation. Evaluating student assignments, moderating and making question papers, evaluating answer scripts and providing guidance to research students are tasks which consume huge amount of time and require a high degree of scholarship, expertise, training and patience. Besides these academic tasks, teaching staff at our universities are burdened with innumerable voluntary chores ranging from mentoring students to providing administrative assistance to the functioning of academic departments, faculties and the entire university system. In many respects, the academic staff of our universities actively deliver their services in their non-academic capacities as student counselors, heads of departments, deans, vice-chancellors and members of various committees, besides their mandatory responsibility of teaching. We need to ask the authorities whether all these services—academic and non-academic—are valued in determining the salaries of our academics. Do we see a logical connection between the services rendered by the academic staff and the salaries they are paid? Academics who are in support of the trade union action have also argued that the salary paid to Sri Lankan university teachers is far less than the salaries earned by their counterparts in India and other South Asian countries. Hence, the trade union action launched by the FUTA cannot be dismissed as irresponsible or unneeded.

Despite the fact that the trade union action of the FUTA is justifiable for important reasons, the government has shown little interest in engaging with the demands of the academics. The University Grants Commission, in a hasty move to snub the trade union action, has issued a circular, the legal validity of which is now being questioned. It is unfortunate that the government has chosen to respond to the academics’ call for pay hike in a nationalist diatribe calling the trade union action unpatriotic. It may be true that the crisis that besets Sri Lanka’s economy will be a hindrance for the government to concede to the demands made by the FUTA immediately; but it does not warrant the government to belittle their grievances or project the trade union action of the academics in an unfavorable light, as a threat on the national interests of the country.

Trade union action in the recent history of Sri Lanka does not have many success stories. However, in any society, trade union activities are necessary for the protection of labour rights and to harness the arbitrary and exploitative practices of the state and capitalist forces. The thirty-year-old ethnic conflict has overshadowed the hardships and struggles of the working people. In a militarized society where war-heroes have been celebrated, the contribution of the working people towards this country’s progress has not been duly recognized or remembered by the state. Trade unions have lately become less independent and ethnically polarized in Sri Lanka. May Day rallies have been manipulated by the state and its aides to whip up nationalist sentiments among the public and to create a cult of personality for political leaders. The resignation of university academics enmasse from their voluntary positions as a key trade union measure to demand the introduction and implementation of a revised salary scheme and their persistent refusal to compromise their demands will hopefully rejuvenate the emaciated spirit of the trade unions belonging to the different sectors of Sri Lanka’s economy.

The support given by the United National Party and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna to the trade union action of the university teachers is commendable. However, I sadly note that political parties representing the minority communities seem to remain silent over the trade union action started by the FUTA, as though it were not their concern or responsibility. On several occasions, political parties identifying themselves with minorities have been accused by leftist political parties of conniving with imperialist forces. Though one may argue that it was the failure of the traditional left to back the minorities’ struggle for their rights that moved the minority parties closer to political parties and movements propagating the ideology of neo-liberalism, political parties speaking for the rights of the minority people should consider the role they could play vis-à-vis trade union activities such as the one that has been organized by the FUTA. Supporting this trade union action would broaden the scope of their politics and may offer them an opportunity to work with multi-ethnic groups, and garner their support to address the political aspirations of the minority communities. In the absence of strong left parties, minority parties need to realise that the task of bolstering the rights of the working people is their responsibility too. At the same time, it is time that trade unions such as the FUTA to come forward to re-evaluate their position on the minority question and render their support to the cause of the minorities.

The hegemonic structure of the nation needs to be contested from multiple-fronts. The proletariat, minorities, oppressed castes and women are the peripheral, marginalized subjects of the nation. Each of these groups relies on the others to move forward in their quest for power and emancipation. In charting its future course of action, the FUTA or any other activist movement or political party needs to consider a Sri Lankan context marked by multi-pronged struggles and the manner in which those struggles are inextricably intertwined. The success of any political action aiming at better freedom for the oppressed is contingent on the ability and willingness of the political movements and trade unions involved in that action to accommodate struggles of different kinds under a common political program. The struggle initiated by the FUTA and the support extended to it by academics from all regions of the county remind us once again of the importance of mass-based, multi-ethnic political movements to overcome the political challenges that lie before us.