The President and the teachers

As was pointed out in the Stabroek News editorial on Monday, the “social compact” about which President David Granger spoke so glibly prior to May 2015 has been all but forgotten. He gives the impression that before coming into office he had a vision in his mind about how he wanted to refashion the society, but in order to get elected he addressed various sectors in terms which resonated with their expectations. He seems to have believed that once he was ensconced in State House the demands of those sectors, particularly the ones which normally might be considered sympathetic to a coalition government, would become attenuated, and he could proceed as he had intended.

The truth of the matter is, however, there are many cross-currents in any democracy, and our own version has more than most, its modest size notwithstanding. As it is, therefore, President Granger has got caught in the eddies and rapids of more than a few of them, the latest being that created by the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU). As a result, he now finds himself in the unexpected position of intervening to try and more permanently deflect the strike by the nation’s teachers; it has been temporarily postponed pending the meeting.

Monday’s editorial alluded to the promises made to the public servants on the campaign trail, and the reversion for two years in succession to the imposition of wage increases at the end of the year and the bypassing of collective bargaining; a practice which was instituted by former president Bharrat Jagdeo. At the same time, the President took the perverse step of appointing President of the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) Patrick Yarde as the Chairman of the Public Service Commission, a decision which given its conflict of interest character, tempts everyone to the view that there is a nexus between that and the wages issue.

The GTU was caught in the embrace of the imposed wages decision, because its members were regarded as a species of public servant, but it has not been willing to accept this arrangement indefinitely. Its salaries and related proposals were first laid before the government on December 17, 2015, but received no response. After rumblings about strike action, Minister of Education Nicolette Henry was obliged to meet the union last Thursday, but that encounter was nothing short of a disaster, since it lasted all of five minutes, we reported yesterday.

Either relevant ministries failed to fully brief Minister Henry about government’s stance on the teachers, or she did not take the time to apprise herself in detail as to what that stance was. Alternatively, in circumstances where she has been associated with a series of snafus, this might have been another ‘Henryism’ to add to her      collection.

Whatever the case, in a somewhat unusual joint statement from the union and the Ministry of the Presidency on Friday it was stated that her position that “government can only offer wage increases in keeping with those offered to public servants,” was not actually the government’s position after all. And just what was the government’s position? According to Minister Joe Harmon, the increase offered “was never intended to be the final position of the Administration but rather an interim arrangement.”

Even if that were the case it must have caused the union to wonder, at the very least, exactly how interim this ‘arrangement’ was envisaged to be. It was General Secretary Coretta McDonald of the GTU who told Stabroek News that Minister Harmon had said that the Education Ministry had submitted nothing to Cabinet about the first proposal put forward on December 17, 2015.

Although she did not express it quite in these words, she did imply that the union had cause to question the good faith of the Ministry as a consequence. She went on to say that the Ministry kept repeating that they were waiting on guidance from the Finance Ministry and the Cabinet Secretary, but if what Minister Harmon said is correct, then they simply did not know about it. Having said that, however, one might have thought that after two years of imposed salaries, the government would have communicated to the GTU through the Education Ministry exactly when they intended serious collective bargaining should get under way.

One has to wonder, of course, exactly why a meeting with Minister Henry that was designed to head off a teachers’ strike lasted only five minutes. Even if the parties were far apart in terms of bargaining positions, one might have thought that the Education Minister would have put in a great deal more effort to try and come to some kind of modus vivendi with the union, which would at least have postponed the inevitable until she could get more assistance or the government could rethink their hardline approach.

But no, instead a rather unsuitable statement emanated from the Ministry which blamed GTU President Mark Lyte for the dispatch with which the meeting was conducted. It claimed that Mr Lyte stood up to ‘truncate’ the meeting, while everyone else remained seated, including Ms McDonald, who suggested that the GTU President sign the non-financial aspect of the agreement; however, he did not do so.

As we reported yesterday, the General Secretary insisted that this did not happen, although her version might suggest that Mr Lyte did rise early from the negotiating table, no doubt because the Minister’s absolutist approach and lack of negotiating skill made any further exchanges redundant. However, Ms McDonald strongly denied the remainder of the statement, claiming with some justification for someone in her position, that she “would never disagree publicly with … [her] President or act in a manner contrary to teachers’ interest.” If her version is indeed correct, then the Ministry of Education is acting in a disreputable fashion, hardly designed to encourage an atmosphere of trust between the two sides.

So now in order to avert a countywide teachers’ strike on Thursday and Friday, the President himself has entered into the fray and is meeting the union tomorrow. Even with the Minister of Finance present, one can only presume that he will not be involving himself in the details of salary negotiations, although he may have an interim offer to make as well as giving some guarantees about setting up a framework for more meaningful negotiations. Whatever the President and Minister Jordan have to propose, there is still no certainty that it will be acceptable, and that it will prevent a teachers’ strike at the end of this week.

This President is genuinely committed to education, so it is unfortunate that he got himself into this situation. But then, he creates visions about what he wants – some eminently desirable and some which might not have the same appeal to all segments of the society – but then devises means to get there which are either totally impractical, unnecessarily divisive, or potentially a source of friction and complications. If he had insisted his government return to collective bargaining as he had promised in 2015, he would most likely not be in a position where he had to meet the GTU   tomorrow.

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