For some time I have suspected that collective bargaining (CB) cannot result in an increase in public servants’ wages to the level they require to compensate for the historical and moral deficiencies they believe they are sustaining. Now a 2018 study, which has found that CB in the USA does not increase teachers’ pay, appears to support my fears. When coupled to the manner in which this dispute has been developing the teachers and their union need to proceed very carefully.
Focusing on education, the study examined the normal belief that CB by public employees increase the size of government, i.e. it ‘empowers unions to extract sizable material benefits such as more jobs, better job protections, and higher compensation.’ From the 1960s onwards, mandatory CB laws were passed in 33 states and are believed to be the main reason why teachers are the largest group of unionized public employees in the country. The study examined what happened to the level of resources devoted to education when states passed laws ending prohibitions on teachers’ CB and required that education districts bargain with teachers’ unions. ‘The results … indicate that the positive correlation between collective bargaining rights and the size of government is spurious – at least for teachers.’ Districts with collective bargaining laws do spend more per student on education, but ‘they already did so well before the emergence of collective bargaining rights or modern teacher unions.’
The author argued that the main reason why CB did not have a positive impact on education spending is that ‘contrary to the existing’ assumption that the laws favoured unions, in most states the content of the laws not only gave teachers CB rights but also introduced provisions designed to limit union power. Nineteen of the 33 states that passed laws granting teachers CB rights also included strike penalties designed to raise the cost of striking and education expenditure in these states did not lead to increases in the size of government.
What this says to me is that the structure of the CB process is critical and that the structure in Guyana, which ends in arbitration in which the parties must agree upon on terms of reference, cannot normally compensate for the perceived wage deficiencies. There might well be historical outliers, but governments will not proceed to arbitration without including restrictive conditionalities that the arbitrators must take into consideration such as the necessity to: maintain and improve the standard of living of all workers; the need to ensure the government can continue to finance public sector development programmes; the necessity to maintain and expand the level of employment, to name only a few.
Put another way, the CB process was designed to deal with normal incremental demands and is unlikely to make the level of awards public servants now require. These can only be won where there is the possibility of strong industrial action to induce government to positively respond either before or during the final stage by liberalizing the restrictive conditionalities of the arbitration terms of reference. Outside of the usual rhetoric, this government has done little to suggest that teachers have the priority that will compel it to respond positively. To make this point let us specifically contextualise what is currently in the public domain.
At his third press conference in three years, President Granger said that the report from the high level task force that he helped set up last year to resolve the impasse between his administration and the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) over wages and non-salary benefits, was found to be ‘deficient’ by Cabinet and that ‘negotiations must go back to the drawing board’. More than 2 years after the last three-year agreement between the GTU and the Ministry of Education ended and discourse began for a succeeding one, in November 2017 the president took a hand in the dispute and the task force was established comprising representatives from the ministries of education, finance, communities, public service, the presidency and the union to find a mutual solution to the impasse. The task force deliberated for 6 months until about April this year before its constituent parties agreed that the government should be requested to pay teachers a 40% increase for 2018 and 5% for each of the other two years to 2020.
Please remember that all the major government stakeholders in the cabinet were represented on the task force. How, therefore, could it be that 3 months after the report was presented, the president could claim that his government cannot accept its recommendation because ‘critical information’ was not taken in account? Are we to understand that the concerns of such an important stakeholder as the teachers had such a low priority with this government that neither the minister of finance or the cabinet or one of its sub-committees was given regular briefings on the matter? Then caught in a bind – a taskforce report that it finds unacceptable and a teachers’ union preparing for strike action – the regime decided to abandon the 3 year search for a multi (3)-year agreement, which was the basis of the discussion all along, and without even alerting the GTU made its decision public! The disillusionment in the voice of the GTU president was palpable: ‘The GTU Executive will have to return to its General Council with this information and work from the position they dictate.’
Furthermore, it will be interesting to see how this impasse ends, for after the GTU has sued for arbitration, the government has now, quite belatedly, suggested that it may be able to find some more resources to offer the union. This is an invidious position for both parties, for if the president’s new offer is insufficient to allow the union leadership to save face it will continue to demand arbitration, knowing full well that the arbitrators are unlikely to give less than the final offer of the government and that even if they do the union will not be blamed for taking a good stand and following the only legal course to the very end. Indeed, if the regime rejects, arbitration, it will most likely come under pressure to still pay the promised additionalities.
But the story has not ended, for the minister responsible for labour – the official government conciliator in these kinds of disputes, who has claimed expertise for his ministry in the field of industrial relations – had unwisely inserted himself into the work of the task force and now continues to berate the teachers for wanting to strike (‘Striking teachers are selfish, uncaring:’ SN: 02/09/2018)! President Granger told the press that he is satisfied with the government’s industrial relations performance as ‘The success of the department has to be measured in the fact that we have not had a major disturbance.’ Here the president is correct but that there have been no major industrial disturbances is not because there are insufficient reasons (where are the fantastic increases and CB he promised?) but because of the very factor that plays against the interest of public sector workers – in Guyana ethnic political allegiances takes precedence and impact the unions and their leadership.
Navigating an industrial relations dispute such as the teachers’ might be troublesome, but it has been done too many times for it to be rocket science! The above chronicle of events is alarming in itself and clearly indicates where teachers are on the government’s list of priorities. But the GTU appears the most ethnically diverse of the large public sector unions and so may be able to overcome the structural difficulties contained in the CB process by continuing to take the necessary action to induce the requisite political will.