IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST: Educate, agitate but don’t violate
LET’S PUT THINGS in perspective from the start. Minister of Education Ronald Jones doesn’t like the best bone in me.
I have heard the stories often enough to be satisfied that every opportunity he gets he lets the world know his feeling.
But quite frankly, I really don’t care. The list of people who don’t like me is quite long and he is way down at the bottom. So even if he has a lot of time on his hands, it will still be a while before he gets to the top.
What he and many others seem not to understand is that the positions I take on issues are not predicated on whether or not you like me, or even if I like you. I don’t have to take such an approach because I am not a politician.
On the other hand, I consider president of the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union, Mary Redman, a friend for whom I have had much respect for many years. And while I have not had much contact with her counterpart at the Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT), Pedro Shepherd, I have a small group of trusted friends who speak highly of him and I value their opinions. I therefore hold him in high regard as a professional of worth and a man of good moral character. All that having been said, though, today I take a position against Redman and Shepherd and in favour of Jones.
First, on the issue of the 14-year-old Ellerslie School student who was involved in a violent altercation with one of her teachers. I believe the two union leaders were unnecessarily robust in their calls for the expulsion of the child from the moment news of the incident reached the public domain.
It’s one thing to represent your constituents and to say the incident, as reported, could carry the penalty of expulsion if the child is found guilty. It’s another thing to appear to be applying pressure in a manner that suggests you have arrived at a conclusion and nothing but expulsion will satisfy you. That’s being previous in an equation where the two sides are not evenly matched – a poor working class family versus the combined might of two powerful trade unions.
I also could not help getting the impression that the “conversation” was being framed by the unions to make the child look like an ogre in public and the teacher a saint. Maybe that’s what the child is, but she’s a child and can’t defend herself.
Such tactics may be appropriate when a union comes up against a principal or the ministry or some other big maguffy, but it’s just not right, in my eyes, when it’s a child. And the nature of the offence does not matter to me here.
Then there was the matter of the two unions scheduling meetings with their members last Friday, halfway into the school day. When two unions call out staff to separate meetings on the same day at the same time, with the same effect – the curtailment of activities at all schools – it is not unreasonable, given the climate of the previous days, to conclude it was industrial action.
If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck then at must be. . . . So it comes over as a little less than sincere when you then criticise the Ministry of Education for terming it industrial action.
If you called out the workers, you called them out. It is your right. If you believe you have to again next week, it is still your right; but don’t get testy when someone attaches a label you do not like to it.
My biggest beef with the BUT, though, was the announcement that they must have a meeting with Minister Jones by today or they will not be teaching on Friday, and will continue the action until he meets them.
It is common knowledge that Jones has been suffering from an acute and chronic case of “foot-in-mouth” disease that has been characterised by some of the most injudicious statements one would expect from a supposedly sensible Cabinet minister.
Making it worse is the fact that Jones is a former head of the same union and he used to be a teacher. His comments have too often suggested he does not understand the importance of diplomacy.
But it’s unreasonable to call a meeting, decide you must meet with the minister, set the time, attach an ultimatum to it and broadcast it to the world – and all that even before you tell him you want to meet him. If you had been seeking a meeting all along and the minister had been refusing to meet, then the escalation would be understood.
If that is what has brought the union to this position, then there is a major problem with its public relations machinery because I don’t believe many Barbadians would be aware of this. So again, there is still a serious flaw in your approach.
I’m no trade union leader, so I don’t understand why a union would want a meeting with a minister to get him to explain why he is always talking foolishness about teachers. The union has access to the same platforms as the minister and it should use them.
I would dare to say that if the union chose to answer the minister, given his penchant for saying the wrong thing, it would have a lot more ammunition with which to win any war of words than Jones could ever muster.
Minister Jones has the right to talk foolishness every day and the union has the right to respond. Threatening to shut down the schools or shutting them down to compel him to talk to you across the table about why he so often talks foolishness is in my view unnecessary – although the devil is whispering in my left ear: “Encourage them to strike and embarrass him – then he won’t have time to criticise you everywhere he goes.”
But I have one more fundamental point. It has to do with civil organisations, private sector groups, trade unions, et cetera believing that life can’t exist unless they have regular meetings with Cabinet ministers.
It is an approach that ascribes more power and importance to ministers than they deserve, and too often is the genesis of problems that arise when they make instant policies that can’t be implemented.
What would make more sense is cultivating a climate of frank, open and regular dialogue with those who really drive activities in the public sector – the permanent secretaries, chief officers, and various departmental heads.
We need to stop making some doctor, lawyer or engineer believe that once they have been offered a temporary pick as a minister, all of a sudden they become the fountain of all knowledge.
Too often they are the ones who screw up decades of hard work, and we have to accept blame for it because we believe that miraculously an engineer or architect who has never caught a bus in his life has all the answers to our public transport woes after just a few weeks in a Cabinet.