Testing government’s take-it-or-leave-it pay negotiating strategy

By the time this editorial appears in public we would most likely already have been in possession of the outcomes of yesterday’s meeting between the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) and President David Granger, the invitation to the Union to meet with the President coming in the wake of its call to teachers countrywide to withdraw their services to press its demand that government treat frontally with its proposals for salary increases and other benefits.

The teachers’ union strike call was a departure from the traditional acquiescence of public sector unions   to what, over the years, has been government’s take-it-or-leave-it ‘policy’ in negotiating wages and salaries with the GTU and the Guyana Public Service Union. (GPSU). The outcome of yesterday’s discourse between the GTU and President Granger could, therefore, become a benchmark, a turning point, or otherwise, in the collective bargaining process, determining whether, in the future, government continues to hold the customary take-it-or-leave-it line or whether it changes course, returning negotiations to a more orthodox collective bargaining process. That, it will be recalled, had been one of the coalition administration’s pre-elections promises.

Government’s unyielding posture having long characterized pay negotiations in the instances of both teachers and traditional public servants, who knows whether we may not now be entering a different kind of industrial relations era, at least as far as the teachers are concerned. By himself calling the leadership of the GTU back to the negotiating table President Granger may, perhaps, be signaling, that his government is unprepared to deal with whatever political fallout might accrue from a teachers’ strike, however, modest or otherwise the response of the teachers may be.

On the other hand, If the talks between the GTU and President Granger fail to avert strike action (if the talks fail it is not unlikely that there could be a more protracted work stoppage in schools across the country than the GTU had originally envisaged) that could create a new industrial relations paradigm in which the retention of government’s customary take-it-or-leave-it posture triggers more disruptive action on the part of the teachers’ union. Theoretically at least, the same could apply in the instance of the GPSU though, up to last weekend, that union appeared to have settled in to its customary ambivalent posture in response to the government’s most recent pay increase offer.

What, it would appear, hastened the GTU to its strike call was the handling by Education Minster Nicolette Henry of the talks with the teachers’ union. It was her decidedly indelicate assertion at her meeting with the union that resulted in the walkout and triggered the strike call. It was a miscalculation that not only pointed to her lack of experience in such matters but also a miscalculation that failed to take account of an incremental militancy which the GTU’s leadership has been demonstrating in recent times. It appears that they went to the meeting entirely prepared for the customary official brinkmanship that informs these negotiations and may even have been prepared for Minister Henry’s faux pas.  Frankly, in the matter of the long-standing, complex and contentious negotiations between union and government on teachers’ pay and conditions of service it was almost certainly a tactical error to leave government’s engagement with the GTU mostly up to the new Minister of Education whose background knowledge of the issues and appreciation of the industrial relations backdrop against which the negotiations had previously been taking place would almost certainly have been limited to a few briefings, at the most.

Whatever would have come out of yesterday’s talks between the GTU and President Granger, the bigger picture has to do with how government negotiates with public sector unions in the future.  The GTU would appear to have taken the position that if negotiations are to have any real meaning the first thing that it has to do is hold government’s feet to the fire insofar as its commitment to honouring the principles of collective bargaining in wages and salaries negotiations is concerned. In the instances of both the GTU and the GPSU that commitment appears to have been set aside.

Once the GTU can secure any further gains from yesterday’s meeting with President Granger (and we must assume that his invitation suggests that he is prepared to take the discourse beyond where it stopped during the meeting with Minister Henry) that could well open up an entirely new discourse on the desirability of leaving behind the accustomed take-it-or-leave-it approach to public sector negotiations. That should open a way for the GPSU which, for all the rantings  about government’s most recent pay offer in its media release last week, has still (as it customarily does) stopped well short of threatening strike action. The Union has even found a way of saying to its members that they should take what is on offer even as it contends that the offer is nowhere near good enough, a clear sign that it remains, up until now, a prisoner of government’s take-it-or-leave-it policy.

Christmas time payouts of meagre increases have long been part of the official ‘negotiating strategy’ of government. It is an insult to fair and honest negotiations and takes advantage of the difficult circumstances in which public sector workers find themselves, and which has spawned a kind of half a loaf is better than none mentality that is decidedly degrading and unsustainable in a twenty century union/management negotiating setting.

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