Striking University of Guyana (UG) staffers yesterday marched from the Turkeyen Campus to Georgetown as they intensified their indefinite industrial action to press demands for pay increases, even as UG Vice Chancellor Jacob Opadeyi yesterday made a please for a return to normalcy. (See story on page 18)
About 200 hundred academic and non-academic staff members congregated at the entrance of the Turkeyen Campus to participate in the march, which was organised by the University of Guyana Senior Staff Association (UGSSA) and the Univer-sity of Guyana Workers’ Union (UGWU). The response by some academic staffers and students was, however, less than desired.
The workers marched along the East Coast Demerara Railway Embankment, then moved onto Sheriff Street and into Sandy Babb Street before marching onto Vlissingen Road, where they stopped to picket opposite the Office of the President. They then proceeded along Brickdam, where they briefly picketed in front of the Ministry of Labour’s Occupational Health and Safety office and then opposite the Ministry of Education.
“We overworked and underpaid” was the popular chant by the workers, many of whom carried placards reiterating their demands.
“We are on strike for the entire week until some intervention is made,” UGSSA President Dr Mellissa Ifill stated at the end of the march at Brickdam and Manget Place.
In an invited comment, Dr Ifill noted that a general call was made for those who loved the university and wanted to develop and transform it into a national institution to join the march. The likes of A Partnership for National Unity Member of Parlia-ment James Bond and social activist Leon Saul answered that call and marched with the staffers. The University of Guyana Students’ Society (UGSS) President Joshua Griffith also participated.
When asked about the response of the Ministry of Labour, which has echoed the UG administration’s call for the full resumption of duties by workers before talks recommence, Ifill described it as “abysmal.”
While calling the situation a “crisis that has escalated… in terms of strike action by staff and a revolution by students…,” she said she was not surprised but felt that the statement from the Ministry of Labour calling for the full resumption of duties before the ministry plays a mediating role was premature. “He [Minis-ter of Labour Dr Nanda Gopaul] clearly hadn’t heard from both sides. He had only heard from one side and he made a statement and then the Chief Labour Officer [Charles Ogle] sought to protect and reinforce what his minister said. We are surprised that a statement would be made without full facts being ascertained first by the minister,” Ifill added.
Give us an offer
When asked about the support of the academic staff during the strike, Ifill admitted that some lecturers never left the classroom. She explained that the Deans of the various faculties were not involved in the industrial action, owing to the fact that they are officers of the university “and as a consequence were unable to be involved in the strike.” She further mentioned that there are other lecturers who opted to teach from the start of the semester and she said that the choice was theirs to make. She said although the UGSSA and the UGWU were urging those lecturers to join the strike, they decided to exercise their right by choosing to remain on the job.
According to her, some lecturers who were initially with the strike had written to the administration, signalling their intention to return to work. However, Ifill stated that the unions know that many of those lecturers are not actually there nor are some students from the larger classes attending lectures.
She added that the situation is frustrating to students. “Something absolutely must be done to get the university back to normalcy,” she said, while noting that the unions have since proposed what they deemed reasonable for such an outcome. “Give us an offer that we are comfortable with and we can live with and we will go back… We are committing ourselves to teach and to make sure that the students don’t lose anything educationally when we go back to work,” she added.
Meanwhile, former UGSS President Sherod Duncan lashed out at the UGSS and pointed out its lack of support at the march yesterday. Noting that he did not see students, in particular, the 22 elected members of the UGSS,
Duncan said the UGSS and the students were supposed to join the strike to show their solidarity with the lecturers. “Come out and support the cause. Our students should be here because we want what exactly they want,” he said. “I am a student and I am out here for students’ rights as well as workers’ rights. We want better pay for our staff and we want better facilities for our students,” he added.
When contacted, Griffith dismissed any suggestion that the UGSS was not supportive of what he described as a “just cause” by the staff on strike. However, he noted that while the body supports the cause for an improvement in working conditions, students at the university are being affected by the method chosen by the lecturers to address their dilemma.
According to Griffith, students were hoping that at least two weeks after the commencement of the strike, the unions and the administration would have tried to settle their disagreement. He added that after three weeks, students have become frustrated and were in a danger zone as it relates to classes missed. “It begs the question who really cares and how much do they care?” Griffith said, adding that the UGSS will continue to take steps that will result in the end of the unrest and the full resumption of classes, “since we are most affected.”