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Volume 15, Number 3
February 16, 2009

news

Also in this section:
Minister of Education wants to put school year back a month, teachers may strike
Martinelli unveils election platform
Move to throw Bernal off of Panama City mayoral ballot
Panama News Briefs


In the last national teachers' strike, in 2006, the unions were defeated. The government, facing a referendum with its support dropping, provoked that one and used the dispute to turn the electoral tide. If that's the plan this year, public opinion and the balance of power between labor and management have shifted along with economic conditions and the result may not be the same. Archive photo by Eric Jackson

Ministry seeks to delay public school year's start, teachers may go on strike
by Eric Jackson

There is no question that the 2009 Panamanian school year will not start as scheduled. Already in December the starting day had been set back a week from March 9 to March 16. Then the Ministry of Education delayed the appointments of more than 1,000 public school teachers and says it won't announce whom it will assign where until March 16.

But more than that, the process by which the Torrijos administration doles out school repair contracts to its friends, relatives, political donors, hoodlums who pay kickbacks and the occasional honest bidder has broken down, to the point that the government admits that the people it hired to do repair and renovation work will not be done in at least 420 school buildings by the originally planned onset of the school year. The government's excuse is that the contractors it hired to do the work have found it more profitable to work on tourist resorts than on schools. Minister of Education Salvador Rodríguez has announced his tentative plan to start the school year on April 13 and extend it into the middle of January, 2010.

That has already brought pickets from the nation's richest and most militant teachers' union, the Veraguas Educators Association (AEVE), onto the streets. A number of AEVE members teach in remote rural areas, where they must travel for days beyond where the roads go --- on foot, on horseback, in cayucos or so on --- to get to and from the communities where they teach. For some of these teachers, extending the school year into January would mean that they can't take off for Christmas, get to their homes, then get back to teach in the time that would be allotted. Thus on February 12 about 200 rural teachers and union leaders assembled in front of the Escuela Omar Torrijos and then marched peacefully through the streets of Santiago in protest.

The nation's largest teachers' union, the Teachers Association of the Republic of Panama (ASOPROF), is also unwilling to cut the ministry some slack. "The minister has the right to set the school calendar, but he also has to respect teachers' vacations, which are in January," Colon high school art teacher and ASOPROF leader
Andrés Rodríguez said, warning of an "escalating series of strikes" if the government decrees the school calendar that Salvador Rodríguez suggests.

So labor strife starting in mid-April, two or three weeks before the May 3 elections? That would give the government an opportunity to appeal to parents who would rather have their kids in school than at home or on the streets, to send in the cops to beat some learned heads, to have the PRD candidates make "get tough on people blocking the roads" declarations and so on just before the voting.

The questions would then become which tactics the unions and government would use and whether people would agree with President Torrijos's frequent anti-labor pronunciations and his customary shows of force.

It appears that the public health system doctors' strike at the end of 2007 --- and the inflation that diminished most Panamanians' living standards --- marked the end of the effectiveness of the approach that had worked for the government until then. One would expect, then, that either someone on the Torrijos team will have come up with a different plan, that we are seeing a bluff on the government's part, or that the lame duck administration has gone past the point at which anyone much cares what happens.

Because there would be no contract negotiation involved, "talks" and an "agreement" with the PRD's anti-union organization, the United Teachers Coordinator (CUM), would likely not be an option for the government. In the 2006 strike, the government "negotiated" a "contract" with CUM --- which was never submitted to membership for a vote because CUM is a paper organization that has no membership to speak of or with, let alone to hear from. Torrijos then broke a strike and imposed the "agreement" on the Teachers Action Front (FAM), the alliance of the nation's teachers' unions.

On the teachers' side, roadblocks or rock-throwing confrontations with police carried out in "solidarity" by the campus radicals would probably play into the government's hands. But in past labor disputes, the Torrijos administration has used petty criminals and agent provocateurs to provoke clashes with or allege violent plots by unions that have tried to maintain discipline to avoid falling into confrontations not of their choosing.

At this point the possibility of a solution that staggers the school year in different schools, so as to allow teachers in remote areas their vacations, a school year that starts later (or on time in other buildings) where schools are unfit for use and provides compensation for any disrupted vacations seems to be off the table. It may end up that things are settled in that way, but both the Torrijos administration and unions seem to be itching for a fight before that happens.

Usually the decree setting the school calendar is issued in late December but now it's mid-February and it has still not been forthcoming. Education Minister
Rodríguez says that he has sent his recommendation to President Torrijos, who will have the final say on the matter --- but maybe not so far as the teachers' unions are concerned.

Also in this section:
Minister of Education wants to put school year back a month, teachers may strike
Martinelli unveils election platform
Move to throw Bernal off of Panama City mayoral ballot
Panama News Briefs

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