Stabroek News

GTU was badly advised but all is not lost

Last week I argued that collective bargaining (CB) cannot increase teachers’ pay to the level they require to compensate for the historical and moral deficiencies they believe they have sustained and are still sustaining, and concluded that a good result for the teachers  can only be won where there exists ‘strong industrial action to induce in the government the political will to positively respond either before its final stage or during that stage by liberalizing the restrictive conditionalities of the arbitration terms of reference.’ I then said that, ‘This government has done little in relation to the teachers to suggest that the political will exists.’

We are at the final stage of the CB process without any of the above occurring, largely because I believe the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) leadership was badly advised. The union has now reached the arbitration stage and inexplicably has called off the strike without having first concluded the terms of reference for the proposed arbitration. Furthermore, so far as I am aware, during the conciliation process it was unable to extract any new meaningful offer from the government and rather than leaving it to the arbitrators to decide, it has stated without any good reason that it was willing to accept a 20% increase in wages instead of the 40% the task force that examined the government finances recommended!

Public servants are generally viewed as intolerant and useless: adding unnecessary cost to relevant levels of the production process. But perhaps because most of us have had a favourite teacher and had, have, or will have children in whose success teachers have played, are playing or will play a substantial part, in my opinion, in our society teachers represent the soul of the public service. While it is true that some teachers are accused of not properly teaching and forcing children into after-school lessons, even the need for those lessons is usually blamed on the state. Therefore, most people – even the APNU+AFC government – want a better deal for teachers and the union began the strike with an unusual level of public support.

However, the GTU’s leadership appears not to have understood that the major disadvantage of arbitration in relation to the other levels of the industrial relations dispute resolution process is that, as in the court system, it takes decision-making out of the hands of the self-interested parties and places it in the hands of persons who, outside of their moral and professional desire to be just, do not particularly care about the outcome. Therefore, no one resorts to the court or arbitration unless it is unavoidable, and in this context arbitration is not certain or agreed until the terms of reference are agreed.

The regime is not being malevolent: it simply has been led to believe that it is not economically feasible at this stage to pay what is being requested and will, therefore, use its power to attempt to construct terms of reference that protect its position.  Since it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the union to immediately call another strike and it cannot simply walk away with nothing, the GTU is now under tremendous pressure to accept terms of reference that are overly accommodating to the government, and this must be carefully monitored. 

Given the controversial nature of the process, it is usual for the terms of reference to be contained in the terms of resumption that end the strike. The president of the union is reported as saying that some law required that the strike be called off before the terms of reference of the arbitration are completed. I am not aware of any such law and my recent enquiries suggest that in practice one can adopt either position. The Labour Department exists to provide both parties with unbiased advice, but perhaps such advice was not sought! In any case, before a strike is called, one should be prepared to protect one’s interest to the extreme. Friends of the GTU would have us believe that its leadership; who had to wait three years and has not yet achieved an agreement, who participated in a government-sponsored task force whose recommendations were then discarded and who had to most reluctantly bring its members onto the streets, wanted to show good faith! All I can do now is wait and hope that its good faith is reciprocated.

The president is also reported as saying that he hopes ‘that the (arbitration) panel will take a neutral look at what the economy can afford and offer what is needed by teachers to have a livable wage’ (SN: 09/09/2018). But as we have seen, arbitrations are not neutral, or to put it another way, they are at best only neutral based upon the terms of reference presented to them. The GTU is now in a very weak position, but my experience and observations in negotiating these matters suggests that all is not lost. The union’s interest will, however, be best served if it tries to negotiate a medium term solution for acquiring the living wage it seeks. After all, for over a decade and a half it has been attempting to win a large one shot increase to no avail.  

During the very controversial 2002 negotiations for a three year agreement between the GTU and the MOE (which did not end well), among other things, two of the proposals made by the MOE were that for 2002 salaries should be calculated based upon the rates of inflation and economic growth and that teachers’ salaries ‘should not be below 80% of comparable positions in the general private sector’ and  that the government would gradually, in an agreed time frame, work to achieve this end. The union requested a 50% to 60% increase in salaries for 2002 and increases based upon the rate of inflation, growth of the economy and government revenue collection for the other years.

The net-based Average Salaries Survey places the present average gross salary in Guyana at G$3,928,482 per annum or G$327,374 per month, and average gross teachers’ salary at G$1,346,894 per annum or G$112,241 per month. Recognising that average private sector salaries will be higher than the national average and the other limitations of these numbers, if the 2002 proposal had been accepted and implemented, the average gross teacher’s salary would now have been in the vicinity of G$3,142,786 per annum or G$261,898 per month (https://www.averagesalarysurvey.com/guyana).

These are prospective figures but they suggest that today, 16 years later, rather than fixating upon a huge immediate increase, other approaches should be attempted, for if the 2002 proposal had been accepted and vigorously pursued, the current salaries dilemma of teachers would have vanished.

henryjeffrey@yahoo.com