The Trades Union Congress (TUC) yesterday repudiated the terms of a consensus agreement in the National Assembly for the restoration of the annual subvention to the Critchlow Labour College (CLC), which had been cut by the government eight years ago over accountability concerns.
Contending that the opposition had been duped by the government, GTUC General Secretary Lincoln Lewis told a press conference yesterday at TUC headquarters on Woolford Avenue that the union movement was “not prepared to sell its rights to the government or to any other.”
Following a heated debate on Thursday in Parliament on a motion for the restoration of the CLC subvention, the opposition agreed with a government proposal for the TUC’s rival, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG) to have the same
number of members as the TUC on the board. Yesterday’s rejection of this agreement by the TUC reopens old labour divisions with the government-allied FITUG and is seen as deeply embarrassing to the opposition.
Alliance For Change’s (AFC) member Trevor Williams, during Thursday’s sitting of the national Assembly, led the debate on a motion in his name for the return of funds to the learning institution, which he said had been struggling financially since its subvention was cut eight years ago.
On the other hand, members of the government stressed that it was not feasible giving state funds to the institution that they said had problems with financial management. They then floated a compromise, saying that if there was an agreement to share its board representation equally with its historic rival FITUG, they would support the motion.
Without apparently considering what the TUC’s position might be, the opposition gave in to a government request for Williams’ motion to be amended and to cater for a 4-4 representation on the board in return for the restoration of an annual subvention, a figure last stated at some $32 million plus.
When Williams’ amended resolution was put to the vote, it was approved by 61 parliamentarians. The remaining four others were not in the House at the time of the vote.
In a swift response, Lewis yesterday stressed that while the motion to restore the funds was a timely one the National Assembly cannot dictate who should sit on the CLC’s Board as it was a private institution. He called the move by the house a violation of the constitution, by-laws of CLC and disregard for the right to freedom of association.
“For the National Assembly to arbitrarily take a decision to impose a new management structure on the college is a usurpation of the by-laws of these institutions and a matter no law-abiding citizen should countenance much less be voted on in the National Assembly,” he declared.
In addition to the proposed 4-4 membership for the TUC and FITUG, Lewis pointed out that the board also has a representative each from the ministries of Education and Labour, which would effectively give the government six seats on the board to the TUC’s four.
‘Nothing to hide’
Lewis said that he was appalled that government would lay claims of mismanagement of funds at the door of the CLC as audits performed over the years by the Auditor General, on the funds given by government, never revealed any “financial skullduggery.”
“Assertions made in the National Assembly of the college being engaged in financial impropriety with the use of state funds are hereby questioned… all monies that came to this college from the state was placed in a special account and was audited every quarter…. From what I have seen from the accounts up to 2007 there was nothing untoward,” Lewis said.
Nonetheless, he said that the CLC’s books were open for auditing as they have nothing to hide.
“We are not averse with respect to consultations and discussions as they relate to the forward thrust of the institution and I think that we are amenable to any discussions and opening our records for assessments relative to what we have done with respect to the development of the institution,” he said.
He opined that the opposition was outmaneuvered by the government and that’s why they yielded to the decision.
“For the PPP, this vote in the National Assembly is the cover needed to continue its discriminatory action. The opposition has sadly given their discriminatory act legitimacy. They were totally outmaneuvered by the government,” Lewis charged.
“The GTUC has a proud history of being independent, regardless of the political support of its leadership, and this goes back to the days of Joseph Pollydore, who though a friend of Forbes Burnham was not afraid to challenge and or provide GTUC’s support for industrial actions against successive PNC administrations. This right to self-determination and independence the GTUC guard zealously and will not compromise it to enjoy any other right. Rights are non-negotiable. Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, whom the college is named after, fought for universal education, Pollydore realised it through the establishment of the college. It is in the interest of the current cadre of leadership to zealously defend and advance this legacy,” Lewis declared.
The TUC has always argued that the subvention was cut for reasons other than accountability.
The AFC’s motion was passed despite an earlier suggestion by A Partnership for National Unity’s (APNU) MP Basil Williams that the matter be sent to a select committee where all the interested parties could make representation.
Government back-bencher Manzoor Nadir, a former Labour Minister, was the first to indicate that government was willing to support the motion if there was an equal number of members from the two union bodies on CLC’s Board. At the same time, he noted that CLC was born at a time when there were fewer non-formal educational institutions compared to today. The Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) and the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) run programmes that have been accredited by the University of Guyana and the University of the West Indies (UWI), it was noted.
Consensus was, however, not reached before Minister of Labour Dr. Nanda Kishore Gopaul launched a blistering attack on the lack of accountability and poor record keeping at the CLC that led to government withdrawing the subvention.
He said the government could not have continued to pour money from the Treasury into an entity that lacked both accountability but also whose board members were drawn from unions with few delegates and members and were in many instances “paper unions”. The description “paper unions” is a metaphor for the split in the TUC which led to the formation of the breakaway FITUG group in the late 1980’s. The FITUG unions had argued that delegate numbers at TUC conferences were rigged in favour of the paper unions. Ironically, Lewis’ bauxite union was one of those which left the TUC for FITUG.
Gopaul contended that the fate of the CLC was linked to the disunity in the trade union movement that had led to the exodus of several large unions, including the main sugar union, GAWU, to form FITUG.
Reacting, APNU’s Williams accused government of pummelling the GTUC while promoting FITUG.
Yesterday, the GTUC Secretary said that Gopaul’s allegations were “unfortunate” as he was once an elected treasurer of the GTUC.
APNU MP Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine, who is a former Principal of the CLC, acknowledged during Thursday’s debate that a lack of accountability at the institution was a grave problem. He also accepted the idea of broader union representation and said the CLC could be used as a vehicle to forge trade union unity.
Roopnaraine traced back his efforts at bridging the divide by constantly engaging the Minister of Labour with a view to addressing government’s concerns. At the same time, he said the CLC had been busy crafting strategies and academic programmes with a view to having them accredited to international universities. He recalled that after a while, communication had broken down between CLC and government.
To this, Lewis exclaimed it seemed strange that Roopnaraine never raised concerns about this at parliamentary sittings.
AFC Vice Chairman Moses Nagamootoo told the Assembly on Thursday that no effort should be spared in ensuring that the CLC is equipped to offer genuine labour education, including on the history of the workers’ struggle in Guyana.
CLC has in recent months begun offering a number of courses without government subventions. Relying mainly on tuition fees, the management has recruited several lecturers to teach the requisite courses.