March 22, 2011

New teacher union demands; same old chaos

Honduran students want to go to schoolWhat about them?
[All images: La Prensa and El Heraldo, Honduras]

Despite his announcement of emergency measures on Friday, over the weekend Honduran President Pepe Lobo offered another chance for dialogue to the teachers' unions, which they rejected because they demanded that Lobo personally be involved. Though Lobo said that he would not negotiate further until the teachers were back in the classrooms, he delegated Minister of Education Alejandro Ventura and others to dialogue with the unions.

Lobo also now says that no teachers will be fired because he respects the
Estatuto de Docente (teacher law), which apparently provides that no teacher ever placed on the Education payroll can ever be taken off for any reason during their lifetime, and in some cases, even afterward!

[Please note that all the links in this article, unless otherwise noted, are in Spanish, because that is the language of Honduras and its media. There is limited, superficial coverage in English-language international media. While some Spanish-language articles translate adequately using Google Translate or other online translators, I've found that many times the translations are nonsensical and include errors, such as leaving out words like 'no/not', that render them useless. I recommend HondurasWeekly for English-language coverage.]

New Demands

La Prensa reported that the unions now have four fundamental demands to which they insist that Lobo accede before they will negotiate:

1) Return to indexing teachers' salaries to the minimum wage. (Don't be confused by this. Teachers make much more than the minimum wage, in many cases they make multiples of the minimum wage and want all of their bonuses indexed to the minimum wage as well. The IADB report linked below states that even before Zelaya made additional 2007 salary increases, and before the 2009 61% minimum wage increase, Honduran teachers made 48% more the Latin American average, while the quality of Honduran education was much below average!)

2) That the TSC stop the payroll audit and cease the demands for repayment by employees who have received irregular and fraudulent pay.

3) That the National Congress stop the socialization of the proposed Law of Community Participation in Education. Emergency public meetings are scheduled in all 298 municipalities on April 2 to get input from the communities. (This law would place control over schools with the municipal authorities and would allow more parental and community involvement in education. The law does not privatize education or schools as has been falsely claimed by the unions.)

4) That the IMPREMA (teacher retirement fund) intervention committee be immediately dissolved. (One of the plans of the committee is to hire an international firm to do an independent audit of the organization, which would no doubt bring to light abnormalities and probably fraud in the financial management and granting of loans resulting from the unions, the government, and individual politicians.)

You'll notice that this is a different list of demands than was given in Friday's newspaper [summarized in my article No school; strikes, standoffs and now death]. Part of the problem is that there are several unions and they don't always agree on priorities. Years of "negotiations" and trying to placate the unions has resulted in never-ending chaos. The unions have ever-changing, ever-increasing, insatiable demands. Some demands, like missing paychecks, are 100% valid, but notice that missing pay didn't even make the list this time. On numerous occasions in the past, the government has said, "give us a list and we'll pay them". The unions provide lists and the government pays, and the next month there are claims of a new list and a new strike.

Teacher protests set fireDespite prior laws and agreements, teachers refuse to be tested. Teachers refuse to be audited. School directors, unions, and politicians can put their friends and relatives, who may not work in any school anywhere, on the payroll. The education payroll even includes teachers who no longer even live in Honduras or who don't exist period, but incredibly Minister Ventura claims that the Estatuto de Docente prevents him from doing anything about it.

The union representatives walked away from Lobo's latest proposal, as they always do, and called for an indefinite, country-wide strike, as they always do. The unions have shown year after year that they have more power than the government. They have brought the last four presidents to their knees and have spent 14 months doing the same to this president.

Panic in Tegucigalpa, teacher strikesSomehow, sometime, the government and the political parties have to take a stand for the sake of 2.3 million public school students who are being raised in ignorance and who are being taught by example that anarchy is the answer to every problem. Too many children are being taught by their teachers' example that "me" and "my rights" are the only things that count, that personal responsibility doesn't matter, that the rights of all others may be trampled for your purpose, and that if you don't get your way, you throw a fit and set tires on fire. An entire generation of children have been deprived of an education and now an entire population of new teachers has been educated under this same deficient system and with this same lack of ethics.

But action is not only needed for the sake of the children. Honduras is in a vicious, downward spiral of poverty and crime that can only be changed with drastic action. Can new businesses and badly needed jobs be attracted by the "Honduras is open for business" campaign with the kind of environment we have now? Government officials are kidding themselves if they don't think that companies will do their own investigations of the quality of the workforce in Honduras.

Happenings this week

On Monday, the first 1,200 teachers were suspended for periods ranging from one month to one year, including six union leaders. The government has threatened to no longer withhold union dues (several hundred million lempiras per year) or lMPREMA loan payments (totaling L.82 million per month) from teachers salaries; the teachers will have to voluntarily make their payments directly to the unions. But the government so often backtracks on its threats that I won't believe this one until it happens.

Teachers and student protest in HondurasMany teachers returned to class on Monday, despite public warnings from the union leaders on the radio that teachers and substitutes would be forcibly removed from the classrooms and even physically attacked. Both working teachers and parents have reported being personally threatened by militant teachers and union activists. Minister Ventura promised to protect working teachers and called upon parents for their help. Many parents are staying at schools all day to protect their children and support the teachers who want to work.

Police officer injured in teacher strikes, HondurasBut an estimated 3,000 (out of 60,000) teachers joined by high school and university students are still protesting, along with, some say, Zelayaistas of the Resistance and agitators from Nicaragua. Minister of Security Alvarez says he has photos and other evidence of foreign participation.

Fourteen police officers were injured yesterday, including one policeman who was brutally beaten by a gang of about 10 protesters (captured on video and shown on the news last night) who ran away when the officer pulled out (but did not use) his gun. At least one soldier was injured.

Tear gas thrown at police, HondurasProtesters threw tear gas canisters back at police [photo]. Additionally, windows were smashed at several private buildings and workers and customers inside were terrorized by protesters using 2x4 bats studded with nails, rocks, and bottles, which they also threw at security forces (also captured on video). Private vehicles and public property were damaged as well.

Police guard US Embassy in HondurasToday, a huge contingent of police and military are protecting the perimeter of the US Embassy from Zelayaistas. Protesters were prevented from disrupting traffic around the National Congress, but only after starting a fire which damaged some private vehicles.

President Lobo appointed a
new mediating commission, headed by the Minister of Human Rights Ana Pineda and Zelayista Minister Cesár Ham, to once again negotiate with the unions. Lobo says that he welcomes foreign participation in the commission. There is not a chance in the world that the education problem will ever be solved through negotiation.

Minister Pineda also requested that the use of "brute force" to dislodge the protesters be stopped.
Minister of Security Alvarez responded that the police were following exactly the constitution and laws of Honduras and international norms. On a television talk show, he said that the use of water canons and tear gas are the same tactics used by all civilized countries, including the US.

If I were Queen of Education?

Teacher strike HondurasThe time for dialogue and negotiation has long passed. Everyone knows how ridiculous it is to even suggest that this cesspool of chaos, corruption, and political interests can be resolved through negotiation. Negotiation has been tried hundreds of times over the last decade. Even when agreements were reached, the unions never complied with the requirement placed on the teachers and the government often made promises which it had no hope of keeping.

It's time now to take drastic action to finally protect the rights of the children and the citizens of Honduras who cannot afford private education, and to enforce the laws of Honduras, most of all the constitution, which guarantees the right to education as well as the right of free circulation, and states that no person or group of people are above the law.
When all else fails, and it has, that ball falls into President Lobo's court, despite his efforts to deflect it elsewhere.

Being a former auditor, my highest priority would be a complete independent audit of the Ministerio de Educación payroll by an international public accounting firm, along with the implementation of some sort of reliable, corruption-resistant payroll and attendance system that would hold teachers and administrators accountable. A solid payroll system will eliminate the most valid of the complaints, limit irregular payments, and will provide an "audit trail" which could allow the government to take appropriate action in the case of fraud and corruption. Who knows? There might even be enough money left over to put roofs on the schools and desks and books into the classroom. What a concept that would be.

Similarly, the unions — if they really were looking out for the well-being of the teachers — should welcome an independent of audit of IMPREMA. But it is likely that some of the largest irregularities will point to the Zelaya administration so the politically motivated unions reject an audit to the detriment of the future security of their members. In both cases, detailed independent audit reports made public would help to stop the blame game finger pointing that occurs now because both the government and the unions have lost their credibility with the public.

No more "time outs" for protesters; they should be charged with the crimes that they commit just like any other criminals and teachers convicted of crimes should be immediately fired. Any government employee convicted of defrauding the government should be barred from ever holding another government job.

Estatuto de Docente should be revoked as the teachers have never complied with their obligations under this law and the Inter-American Development Bank report [full report in Spanish] [summary in English] clearly shows that it has been detrimental to the quality of education as well as being completely unsustainable financially. Teachers who do not work should be fired after three absences, period.

Union membership should be voluntary. Both payroll and IMPREMA should be periodically audited and frequently subject to spot checks. Procedures should be put in place to ensure that all decisions and loans of IMPREMA are financially sound and not politically motivated. All teachers should be rigorously tested both academically and psychologically to see if they are fit to be teachers; those who are not should be fired. With 20,000 unemployed teachers in Honduras, there is no need to retain teachers who do not have the morals, ethics, or desire to teach children.
Everyone must put politics aside and do what is right for the children and the future of Honduras.

Enough with the incessant, hollow lip service in the name of these 2.3 million children! Take action. Many will complain no matter what decisions are made — that is guaranteed. But if leaders take the high road, those complaints will be shown for what they are, personally and politically motivated.

And to President Lobo: please, please follow through on what you say and don't say anything unless you are prepared to back it up with action. This constant fluctuating from one position to another is confusing and only makes the situation worse by frustrating the teachers as well as those who support you. This is a situation where you can not possibly hope to make everyone happy. Accept that and do the right thing for those who can't stand up for themselves. You will go down in history being respected for that.

Related article:
No school; strikes, standoffs, and now death
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