Increased subvention enough to cover ‘decent’ wage increases for UG staff, unions maintain

The two unions representing workers of the University of Guyana (UG) say that based on the government’s increased subvention to the institution, there are sufficient funds to payout a “decent” increase in wages.

The unions, the University of Guyana Senior Staff Association (UGSSA) and the University of Guyana Workers’ Union (UGWU), made their position known on Friday in response to a statement that was issued by the UG administration, which announced that salaries will be part of the 2017 revised budget, which is one of three critical items that Vice Chancellor Ivelaw Griffith will be placing on the agenda of a special UG Council meeting this Thursday. Griffith has said he cannot negotiate with the union on salaries and benefits without a decision by the Council.

In a joint response, Jewel Thomas and Bruce Haynes, president of the UGSSA and UGWU, respectively, said that that the Government of Guyana increased its subvention to UG by at least 46% for this year. However, they noted that Professor Griffith has indicated that increases in salaries for staff depend on increases in tuition fees. They rejected this linkage and said the unions are adamant that based on the increased subvention, the university has sufficient funds to offer a decent percentage increase to staff.

The unions also noted that they were not consulted for the preparation of the original budget presented to the Ministry of Finance. “The Vice Chancellor’s assertion that he needs to have the budget approved before he can negotiate demonstrates that he perhaps does not understand what is involved in the process.  If Council approves a budget with a certain percentage for staff, there is no negotiation thereafter,” they said, before adding that the negotiation can only occur while the budget is still under revision, and priorities are being considered. They further said that this is the reason for the unions moving to industrial action.

The two unions held protests last Wednesday and Thursday but postponed planned activity for Friday due to the university hosting a sports day.

While the administration asserted that it has been meeting in good faith with union executives for several months, the unions challenged this notion.

They indicated that on January 23, the Vice-Chancellor had agreed to give a date for the commencement of negotiations on 2017 salaries within one week, while on February 27, the union stated that they sent a full strength team to a scheduled meeting, expecting the first negotiation. They said the Vice-Chancellor, however, announced that it was not a negotiation meeting, and that since he would not be in a position to offer staff very much, he was postponing the negotiations to May-June 2017.

The unions also indicated that a Town Hall-style meeting was held in March and was billed as an “emergency” and therefore most union executives attended. They said that it seemed to have been called solely to ask staff not to proceed on industrial action. They added that it was at this meeting that the Vice-Chancellor said that he would be presenting two scenarios for increases to the Council. “This information he had not shared with the Unions before, despite the Unions having written three letters (March 8th, March 15th and March 17th) to the administration by this point.  The letters had indicated that staff wished to have an offer made with regard to wages and salaries, and to have negotiations begin,” they said.

The unions also challenged the UG administration’s claim that a meeting on the proposed School of Entrepreneurship and Business Innovations (SEBI) on March 15th was a campus consultation. UGSSA and UGWU said the invitation to the event billed it as a ‘Leadership Forum’ on the SEBI. At no point was an invitation ever sent to the unions’ executives indicating that the forum would be discussing the revised 2017 budget, they said.

Following the protest action by the unions, the administration said that there is evidence of its responsiveness to the concerns of staff. It highlighted the employment of seven individuals from the UG Printery/Bookstore was regularised by offering them permanent contracts in November last. It also said that three persons from the group of casual employees were appointed Tradesmen in the Facilities Maintenance Department in January. Further, it said casual employees were given contracts for one year and placed on the monthly payroll in February.

The statement went on to state that it was the current administration that increased the pensions of some 50 individuals, who were receiving less than $20,000 per month. It also said that the University granted millions of dollars of educational waivers annually to employees studying for diplomas and degrees, without tuition fees.

But the unions noted that the persons whose contracts with the university have now been regularised do not represent some new extraordinary imposition on the university’s finances.  They have always been employed by the university, they said, while noting that their regularisation and many of the “benefits” alluded to in the administration’s statement represent no more than the administration doing what it ought to.  The unions said that it is puzzling that the administration seems to expect praise for doing no more than it should.

“The Vice Chancellor publicly touts the notion of a unified university with minimal antagonisms. In reality the VC expects no challenge or questions which, demonstrates disrespect for staff and their bargaining units. The recent conduct of the administration: its failure to engage the unions when the budget was being prepared; its great reluctance to share agendas for meetings/events; his attempt to pit staff against students; and most dangerous of all, the absolute refusal to allow persons space to speak does not bode well for unity or good industrial relations at the University of Guyana,” they added.

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