Colombia’s teachers threaten to join an ongoing national strike and shut down the country’s public education system unless the government keeps made promises regarding labor conditions.
The education employees, who delayed formalizing their participation in protests until they had a chance to discuss the matter internally, will go on national strike on September 10 unless the government “fulfills its responsibilities”.
In an interview with Colombia Reports, FECODE Secretary General Rafael Cuello Ramirez said the strike will shut down Colombia’s entire public education system.
“We are going to close every public school in Colombia,” said Cuello. “This will effect five million parents, seven million students. 332,000 teachers are going to go on strike.”
The education sector, said Cuello, is “highly aware” of the implications such a closure could have on Colombian society. “That is why [the national union has] been so deliberate about the entire process.”
Educators, he said, “are not striking just to strike. This is not about anger or senseless action. We have tried every official channel there is. The government made this decision for us. They haven’t left us any option.”
Indeed, a formal list of complaints was submitted to various government ministries weeks ago. Most of the demands on the list involve agreements reached in previous negotiations with the government, agreements union leaders claim have been “completely ignored”.
Meetings with the Minister of Education and other officials have been unfruitful and “deliberately exhausting”, said Cuello. Despite announcing a “zero hour” for strike activities in September, FECODE has yet to be invited to any form of official negotiations with the government.
“[The government has] been jerking us around for months now,” said Cuello. “But this is not a game. This is about people’s lives, their jobs, their families. We don’t know what game the government is playing, but this is going to hurt alot of people. And we don’t want that — our job is to help people, and help children learn. But we cannot do our jobs under these conditions, and we cannot be responsible for the effects of the government’s unwillingness to meet its obligations or even talk to us.”
Still, said Cuello, “there is time. The government has all the time it needs to solve this problem. We will see if they have the will to do what’s right.”
Thus far, that will has been noticeably lacking. The bulk of the complaints outlined in the national declaration released earlier this summer deal with issues that were supposedly settled in previous negotiations that concluded this past May. In particular, the government allegedly owes education workers over $40 billion in unpaid benefits and has yet to establish an agreed upon program that would protect and relocate professors under threat from right-wing neo-paramilitary organizations.
Since the May talks, growing unpaid pension benefits have been compounded by late or unpaid health services for active workers, and four teachers across the country have been murdered in situations linked to armed political forces, with 625 threats reported so far in 2013.
Moreover, the only contact FECODE leaders say they have received in the past three weeks from the national government was a letter sent from the Minister of Education through an intermediary, telling union organizers to direct their claims to another government agency.
“Faced with the impotence of the Minister of Education and her noncompliance with the [May 2013] agreement,” reads the document declaring the September 10th strike date, “we have decided that President Juan Manuel Santos must attend to the negotiation of the education sector’s problem.”
“We are done dealing with the Minister of Education,” said Cuello, “because she is clearly powerless in this situation. And we are done being toyed with and sent from one office to another. We will deal with President, or we will be on strike until we can.”
Activities have been planned throughout the country for the first three days of the strike, after which representatives from each department will meet again to discuss plans going forward. The education workers, said Cuello, “are ready to strike for as long as it takes,” but hope that an agreement can be reached with the government to spare Colombian families the hardship that would entail.
“The strike will be indefinite,” he said. “Indefinite: the government will define what that means.”
- Interview with Rafael Cuello Ramirez