In a rare feat, La Ceiba made the first 30 minutes of the national news on Monday, February 21. Taxi drivers were on strike because they want a cash subsidy from the government due to the high price of fuel. Taxistas were joined by the national teacher union strike.
The teachers' unions were primarily protesting against the national congress' move to look into revoking or revising the teacher law as recommended by the International Development Bank [report summary in English] [full BID report in Spanish]. This law was so poorly conceived that the government basically has no control over teachers and mandates salaries and benefits that are completely unsustainable. An additional reason for the strike which gets more sympathy among the public is that some number of teachers (no one can agree on the number) are still not being paid.
This was the third national strike of the school year, which only began on Monday, February 14. Protesters blocked all traffic on the main highway into La Ceiba at the Rio Danto bridge, a strategic location which not only prevents all commercial traffic from reaching town and the whole eastern north coast, but also prevents many Ceibeños who live on the west side from getting to work and vice versa.
But that wasn't the big news. The big news was that the police actually took action after allowing the strike for a few hours. The police warned the protesters to leave. The strikers didn't, so the police dispersed them with tear gas and removed the taxis from the road — following through on President Lobo's warning that protesters would not be allowed to limit the constitutional right of free circulation of other persons. Several defiant protesters were taken into custody but were released within hours.
Twenty-nine teachers were held at the police station for four hours, but not in cells, until an agreement was reached by the police, teacher leaders, Human Rights representative, and Ministerio Público in which the teachers would be released but if they re-offended by violating the right of free circulation of others again, charges would be filed against them. The agreement was signed by all parties, except the teachers.
The FNRP (Resistance) portrayed a whole different story, claiming that the teachers' human rights were violated. On a morning talk show, Jaime Rodriguez, COPEMH union president, said that teachers aren't slaves (to be held to working 200 days per year) and claimed that students don't need 200 days of classes anyway because of the poor condition of the schools.
The news video showed the striking teachers running from the police like rats from a sinking ship. I switched over to a local channel that had additional video of the events. It was having a call-in poll on this topic. The question of the day was whether or not the callers agreed with the "violent" dislocation of the strikers. Though the extensive video shown on this channel did not show any abuse or excessive force, the host was obviously trying to steer the results by talking about how abusive it was to use tear gas, that everyone has a right to strike, that the police treated the teachers like criminals, blah, blah, blah. Despite his best efforts, it wasn't working.
Caller after caller, all noticeably angry, said that they agreed with the police, that the teachers were criminals, that the teachers had no right to use their children as hostages or to prevent others from going to work. "La Ceiba needs development, not strikes!" "I want to work, not strike!" "I'm glad the police are finally doing something about these delinquents!" Out of about 20 calls, only one said that the teachers were right because he said that his brother, a teacher, hadn't been paid in a year and a half.
According to the local news, teachers in five La Ceiba schools ignored the call for strike and held classes as usual. One school director said that the government needs to solve the pay problem (in which 1-6,000 teachers nationwide are reportedly owed pay), but that striking was not the answer and was not fair to the children.
Last year, President Lobo proclaimed that a day not worked is a day not paid, a statement with which 91% of the callers in this poll agreed. The problem is that there is no system in place to know who is working and who isn't. As far as I can tell, that information would have to come from the school directors who are often the ones locking the school doors and forcing their teachers to strike. The TSC recently said that it would take action against school directors who are falsifying attendance records.
Other teachers are no better than criminals, committing fraud by collecting their pay each month without teaching. Approximately 20,000 (of about 60,000) teachers have been charged with accepting bonus pay for which they are not qualified and other irregular payments. A formal denuncia was recently made by a small, rural community in which the parents kept track of the days worked by the teacher. The teacher worked only 36 days out of the entire 2010 school year. Others in small communities report that the teacher shows up when he feels like it, maybe 2-3 days a week, maybe not at all.
It is obvious that the Education Department has no controls in place to properly process payroll or to determine teachers' attendance. The NGO Transformemos Honduras is asking for help from parents' associations to monitor days of school.
The official 2011 school calendar indicates that the teachers would begin on February 1 and the students on February 7, but that didn't happen. Honduras has a whole generation of students who have never had a complete school year and those high school students will be the next teachers — a university degree is not required for teachers at the lower levels. The very same human rights groups who make wild unsubstantiated claims about human rights abuses in Honduras have nothing at all to say about the human rights of children. The right to an education is guaranteed by the Honduran constitution.
Many teachers don't agree with their unions or the strikes. According to the IDB (BID) study, about 94% think there are too many or way too many strikes. But many teachers continue to go along with them for fear of losing their jobs.
It is time, way past time, for ethical teachers and parents to stand up to the unions for sake of the future of the children. Teachers who aren't willing to be part of the solution are part of the problem.
1,100 La Ceiba taxistas are getting their bonus from the government, L.2,500 (US $132).
Jaimie Rodriguez of the COPEMH union has declared strikes for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday next week.