Anatomy of Unatu standoff with government

Children play in the compound of Nombe Primary School in Ntoroko District after the school was closed due to the Arts teachers’ strike late month. PHOTO | FILE

When the Uganda National Teachers Union (Unatu) and other public service unions signed Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the government on June 22, 2018, the public servants under the umbrella body thought the worst was behind them.

The CBA highlighted plans for salary enhancement across all categories of civil servants for Financial Years 2018/2019 and 2019/2020.

It, however, didn’t take long to run into trouble. 

In 2019, Unatu leadership mobilised teachers across the country to withdraw labour over delayed salary enhancement. 

Consequently, President Museveni summoned teachers’ representatives and persuaded them to suspend the strike.

The salary enhancement discussions were put on the back-burner when schools shut their doors to two Covid-19 variants across nearly two years. The schools finally re-opened this January when pandemic curbs were relaxed.

Going on strike

On May 23, Unatu’s standing committee sat and “unanimously ratified the resolution” resolved to down their tools on June 15, if there was “no satisfactory feedback on the issues pertaining to teachers’ salary increment across the board for Financial Year 2022/2023.”

Mr Filbert Baguma, Unatu’s secretary general, added thus: “Every financial year, teachers have to remind government about the commitments earlier made. Do teachers really matter to this nation? Are the commitments made by government mere boardroom gimmicks meant to silence teachers and foil any plans for industrial action?”

Mr Baguma also revealed that due to alleged constant disappointments, anxiety was mounting among teachers. 

Only satisfactory feedback from the government on their demands, he added, would stop the intended industrial action in its tracks. 

In its absence, as promised, nearly 120,000 Arts teachers in government-aided primary and secondary schools downed their tools on June 15. 

It would straddle more than a fortnight before the Arts teachers grudgingly accepted this past week to take up the chalk.

Discriminatory

The call for industrial action came after Science teachers under their union—the Uganda Profession Teachers Union (UPSTU)—suspended their strike indefinitely. 

The strike had been declared at the start of the second term. The Science teachers relented after the government assured them that the Budget for the 2022/2023 financial year catered to their salary enhancement.

On May 23, Unatu issued a notification to government expressing intention to resume their industrial action if government insisted on implementing “discriminatory salary enhancements” instead of honouring commitments made in the 2018 CBA.

Mr Baguma said during the signing of the CBA, it was also agreed that negotiations for 2020/2021 and 2022/2023 aimed at removing disparities in scales would proceed as agreed. 

He further noted that while some categories of civil servants in the CBA—particularly those in phase one—received their increment in full, teachers, who were supposed to benefit from phase two, received only 25 percent of the expected increment.

The Unatu secretary general, however, hastened to add that the union leadership was still open for further negotiations. 

The option of a strike was not taken off the table, although, especially if their issues were not addressed.

A week into the Arts teachers’ strike, Ms Ketty Lamaro—the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education and Sports—revealed that Unatu’s concerns were being discussed, internally.

“Teachers should desist from anything that disrupts teaching and learning. Schools were grossly affected by the Covid-19 lockdown, and we are now trying to accelerate learning to recover the lost time,” she noted, adding, “[The Arts teachers’] salaries will be enhanced, but in a phased manner because government does not have enough money to pay everyone at the same time.”

Ms Catherine Bitarakwate, the Public Service ministry Permanent Secretary, also reiterated Ms Lamaro’s appeal.

Intransigence

Unatu though, was unwavering in its demand that the government pay Shs4.8m to graduate secondary school Science teachers and Shs4.5m for their Arts counterparts, among other categories. It wasn’t long before the First Lady Janet Museveni—who also doubles as Education and Sports minister—invited Unatu’s top brass for a meeting originally scheduled for June 17 but pushed to June 18 at State House, Entebbe.

The meeting, which was held behind closed doors, was addressed by President Museveni. Mr Usher Wilson Owere, the chairman general of National Organisation of Trade Union (Notu), described the meeting as stormy. Mr Museveni is reported to have advised the Arts teachers to return to work, promising that their enhancement would be done in a phased manner. 

The Unatu top brass, which is said to have taken offence with the President’s tone, defied his directive to return to class.

Not even a June 22 letter from Ms Bitarakwate that described “the current industrial action by the members of Unatu” as “illegal” swayed the teachers. The letter—which in no uncertain terms said the striking teachers had “decided to close the schools” and that “no teacher… has the legal right or justification to close a public school without the concurrence of the government”—was roundly criticised by the public.

Keen to mend fences, Ms Bitarakwate and Vice President Jessica Alupo wrote to Unatu on June 27 seeking an audience. 

The Unatu top brass met with Ms Alupo on June 28, but the discussions held—described as cordial by Mr Baguma—yielded no results.

Turning point

On June 30, Unatu received two letters from the government directing teachers to return to class as negotiations continue. 

The letters from Public Service Minister Wilson Muruli Mukasa and Ms Bitarakwate repeated explanations that scientists were cleared for salary enhancements because they are needed in crucial areas of the economy such as agriculture, industry, and ICT.

The letters precipitated a July 3 meeting involving members of Unatu’s national executive council. 

While Unatu resolved to continue with the strike, there was a change in tune when the teachers met President Museveni on July 3. The teachers resolved to return to class effective July 6, with Mr Museveni later tweeting “please don’t divert us from our journey of attracting and retaining scientists by paying them comparatively and competitively. Don’t interfere with government’s strategy.”

Soon, Mr Baguma found himself on the defensive for the first time after a disbelieving public questioned the sudden change of heart.

“There is a rumour flying over social media that the leaders have been bribed. The leaders have a responsibility to take leadership… if you don’t take over your membership, then you can take them to a wrong direction,” he said.

A section of Art teachers, who have since resumed teaching, said they are working with an extremely low morale. 

Speaking on the floor of Parliament this past week, Opposition Chief Whip John Baptist Nambeshe (Manjiya County) said the selective enhancement of salaries “has opened a Pandora’s box.”

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