Nine days before the 2015 general elections, Stabroek News headlined ‘APNU+AFC makes pact to restore bargaining rights to workers – under gov’t of national partnership.’ It continued, ‘The opposition coalition APNU+AFC yesterday made a pact with the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) and labour unions in Guyana for the resuscitation of collective bargaining should it win the May 11th general and regional polls.’  Presenting copies of the coalition manifesto to Guyana Trades Union Congress General Secretary, Mr. Lincoln Lewis, the coalition presidential candidate, Mr. David Granger, told the gathering ‘We guarantee you that we will stand behind unions so that unions can sit down with employers and restore collective bargaining… it is back to the bargaining table; that is what APNU+AFC will give you.’  Fast forward to May 1st 2018: APNU+AFC is in government and in the Stabroek News we find ‘Union leaders urge workers to fight to protect rights’ and ‘Workers face a clear and present threat of losing what is constitutionally-protected and guaranteed’ and, instead of receiving promissory documents, Lincoln Lewis was being denounced as a ‘traitor’ as he told the May Day Rally that ‘For over 15 years, members of the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) have been deprived of collective bargaining!’ The lament that things have changed but remain the same, is an understatement.

Collective bargaining is covered by Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,  in 1966 Guyana ratified the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98),  Article 147 of the Guyana Constitution recognizes freedom of association and the right to form trade unions, and our Labour Act emphasizes that, unless otherwise stated, collective agreements are legally binding. For a rational government that speaks a great deal about the need to protect  human rights and for the populace to respect the rule of law to so blatantly disregard such a solemn promise to what is largely its core constituency, it must believe that there is a great deal to lose by allowing free collective bargaining.

I see self-interest in the governing elite increasing its emoluments by on average about 50% immediately upon coming to office; not wanting constitutional reform; its position on the elections commission and the appointment of our premier legal officers and now wanting a new voters list, etc. But except that it has bought hook, line and sinker the major excuse of the PPP/C for not allowing collective bargaining, I cannot see disadvantage or inordinate danger in its fulfilling its promise to the public sector unions.

As the story goes, given the large increases the public service unions have historically tended to request, it is more likely than not that bargaining will have to end in arbitration because the unions will not have membership backing to be able to sufficiently restrict their demands and the government will not be in a position to pay, but arbitration is likely to upset the macro-economic framework and thus national development. The almost 60% increases over two years (1999 and 2000) that the Armstrong arbitration awarded to the public servants when the inflation rate averaged 7% per year is usually presented as evidence of this point. However, much closer to the truth is that the Armstrong award was an outlier that concluded on the same day as another tribunal between the government and the teachers union, which awarded the latter an increase of only about 11% for 1999.  If the PPP/C regime was not set upon dominating the political space by disadvantaging PNC supporters, it could just as well have taken the teachers award as its operating template. The fact is, once the parties intend to be honest with each other, the manner in which public service collective agreements are legally framed in the Caribbean gives some advantage to governments and generally allows for non-contentious solutions of industrial disputes.

Public sector industrial relations and collective bargaining are somewhat different from those in the private sector, where companies must make profit to be able to maintain employment and increase emoluments. Broadly, the public service consists of teachers, nurses, the police, civil servants, etc. all making their own demands upon the public purse by touting their own importance to national development, and the time was when it was thought that the state’s ability to pay was not very important (and some still so believe) – one had only to determine what sum was required and tax the citizenry. That kind of approach is, however, over as various governments found it necessary to cut social spending including wages to rebalance their macro-economic framework. Guyana experienced some of this in the 1980s and generally, national economic management is now much tighter and governments have established the appropriate legal arrangements to peacefully settle industrial disputes.

In Guyana, collective agreements with the public service like most contain arrangements for negotiations, conciliation and finally arbitration. If no agreement is reached after discussions with the government through the appropriate ministries, the Ministry of Labour could attempt to conciliate and if there is no agreement at this stage, upon agreeing terms of reference, arbitration by a panel usually consisting of an equal number of representatives of the government and union with a chairperson either chosen by agreement between the two parties or in some cases by the minister of labour, is available.

Constructing the terms of reference for the Armstrong tribunal was troublesome, with the unions trying to restrict its scope and the government insisting that the arbitrators must take into consideration the national economic conditions. Trinidad and Tobago arbitration legislation contains these kinds of conditions for in addition to taking into account the parties’ submissions, section 20 of the Industrial Relations Act demands that the tribunal shall also be guided by the following: (a) the necessity to maintain and expand the level of employment; (b) the necessity to ensure to workers a fair share of increases in productivity in enterprises; (c) the necessity for the establishment and maintenance of reasonable differentials in rewards between different categories of skills; (d) the necessity to maintain and improve the standard of living of workers; (e) the necessity to preserve and promote the competitive position of products of Trinidad and Tobago in the domestic market as well as in overseas markets; (f) the need to ensure the continued ability of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to finance development programmes in the public sector. Once placed in legislation, these kinds of considerations affect the entire negotiation process.

Particularly now that the public service unions are not antagonistic to the government, it is inexplicable that it cannot see the long term benefit of having a progressive industrial relations environment. Governments’ behaviour towards their employees tends to  deeply influence how the private sector views, treats and rewards its employees. Further, properly organised collective bargaining, including arbitration, can have a sobering effect as government managers and unions will have to establish and implement defensible plans and approaches, and at a practical level the union membership will come to appreciate that far more than their self-interest is at stake. In totality but specifically in terms of distribution of emoluments, largely because of its rejection of collective bargaining, the psychological legacy left by the PPP/C has not moved us much beyond the tax and spend days. But even in the absence of these tangential advantages, it would be a bleak day when it becomes acceptable that politicians can discard human rights, important principles and the law of the land to achieve their ideological objectives or compensate for their managerial inadequacies.

henryjeffrey@yahoo.com