Stabroek News

Teachers’ recent strike and workers pursuit of the respect for Collective Bargaining

Lincoln Lewis

By Lincoln Lewis

Lincoln Lewis brings more than three decades of local, regional and international trade union experience. Served in the capacities as General Secretary, Guyana Bauxite and General Workers Union (1981 to present); President (1993-1995) and General Secretary (1999-present), Guyana Trades Union Congress; President (2000-2007) and General Secretary (2007-2010), Caribbean Congress of Labour; Vice President (1998-2008), Inter-American Organisation of Workers (ORIT/TUCA); Executive Member- Miners International Federation (1990- 1993); and Workers’ Representative, International Labour Organisation (ILO) Technical Committee for the establishment of the Convention on Safety in Open Cast Mines (1990).

The almost two-week strike (August 27- September 5, 2018) by our public-school teachers has its genesis in two factors. Firstly, the reluctance of the employer (i.e. Ministry of Education) to respect the principles of Collective Bargaining, and secondly, the misguided thinking by those in the corridors of power that an organised workforce poses a threat to society.

Lest it be forgotten, the trade union movement was the first mass-based organisation in this country (indeed, in the Caribbean). Its role has not only seen attendance to bread and butter issues, such as wages/salaries and working conditions. This was the organisation that first confronted the colonial establishment from the early 1900s-1905 to be exact – and engaged in activism for the holistic welfare of the working class – past, present and potential.

It was the trade union community that began raising mass awareness that workers’ welfare is much more than during working hours. It intricately linked welfare to issues such as universal education and healthcare, Landlord/Tenant relations, housing, universal adult suffrage, internal self-government, Caribbean integration, to name a few. Trade unionism believes workers’ productivity increases and they reap the just rewards for their labour where they are enabled to play a meaningful role in shaping their destiny – today referred to and recognised in our Constitution as involvement in the management and decision making processes of the State that impact their wellbeing.

The aforesaid foundational principles were put in place by Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow -national hero and Father of Trade Unionism in the British Commonwealth, at a Caribbean Labour Conference in 1926, held in our Parliament building. When the mass-based political institutions such as the Political Affairs Committee (1946), People’s Progressive Party (1950) and the People’s National Congress (1957) were established, the leadership not only saw the political utility of associating with the trade union, given its perennial state of readiness and mobilisation, but adopted Labour’s Agenda into their political platform.

In 1957, Forbes Burnham instructively said, “This Party [the PNC] started as a working class party and will never give up fighting for the workers, we will never and can never forsake them; the moment we do we had better arrange for our Political Funeral.”  This is substantiating acclamation that if politicians seek to associate with the trade union they ought to value it as a key player in society. Unfortunately, generations of political leadership, the current crop included, are by their actions demonstrating no such sentiment or value is attached to the workers until they are seeking office or placed in the opposition.  

The history of the working class has always been one of fighting for respect, to be considered equal and participating members of society, deserving of the benefits and protection of fundamental rights and freedoms, and just laws. The pursuit of these and the relationship with the political class (all of whom have working class roots) have not been absent of conflict. Conflict is inevitable in any situation where two or more persons exist, given competing interests and foci. Maturity acknowledges this fact and the importance of engagement in a civil manner to ensure peace and harmony, be it the family, workplace, government/workers relations, as with any institution.

What the political forces also fail to acknowledge is that whereas they can vacillate, trade unions, guided by universally acceptable tenets, must remain constant. It is also not lost on me that sections of society have always felt the trade union has been used by the politicians to pursue their self-serving agenda. The perception, principles and reality the trade union has always had to confront, in an environment of growing intolerance by the political class and its uncritical pursuit of a neo-liberal economic agenda, is being targeted as foe not friend, and convenient vessels.

Having presented the backdrop of trade union’s existence, relevance and tendency of forces – within and without – to use the institution as a whipping boy or seek its convenient alliance, we arrive at the current industrial relations climate, specifically the case of the Guyana Teachers Union (GTU).

The GTU had entered into a five-year Collective Labour Agreement (CLA) with the Ministry of Education which came to an end in 2015. This Agreement is yet to see fulfilment and in pursuit of achieving same, the Union held several acts of industrial agitation during the extant period. Unless otherwise expressly stated a CLA is legal, binding and enforceable by the Court. Prior to the expiration of the last Agreement, the GTU prepared another multi -year (2016-2020) proposal and which it submitted to the Ministry of Education in November 2015. At that time the Minister of Education was Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine.  

Society will recall that in 2015, A Partnership for National Unity and Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) campaigned on the commitment to respect Collective Bargaining and workers’ rights. Based on this commitment, on 1st May 2015 the Guyana Trades Union Congress    (GTUC) shared its platform with Presidential Candidate David Granger and Prime Ministerial Candidate Moses Nagamootoo. These men castigated the PPP/C’s poor track record in this regard, and endorsed a communique with the GTUC to pursue workers’ interests should they be elected to office. That Labour Day Rally was used by yours truly to call on workers to fire the PPP/C and hire the APNU+AFC. 

Though the question is often asked whether I regret making such call, I remain convinced that the society needed to check the wanton excesses, contempt for the Rule of Law, mismanagement of the nation’s resources and abuse of the people during the PPP/C stewardship. Society needed a breather and the opportunity presented to another group to right the wrongs, govern in a more inclusive way, and respect the workers/citizens. The APNU+AFC made that promise.

In April 2016 when Dr. Roopnarine was asked about the progress of the teachers’ negotiation, he reportedly said the talks are discussions not a negotiation, and the coalition government was not committed to 40-percent increase for teachers (Kaieteur News, April 21, 2016). And whereas the PPP/C, now in opposition, rightly condemns the government for creating the poor industrial relations climate by “bad faith” engagement, successive PPP/C governments have demonstrated similar acts of “bad faith”. Aspects of the 2010-2015 agreement are yet to be implemented and in the pursuit of same the teachers had engaged in various forms of industrial action during this period.

The bilateral discussion with the Ministry of Education and GTU, with a view at arriving at full enforcement of the previous agreement and creation of a new one, was never encouraged. The Union has had to confront a new culture where the new subject Minister Nicolette Henry has adopted the posture of representing the employer from a position of superiority, treating the Union’s representatives as her subordinates. This posture created a restive environment and never augured well for any progress. It should be noted that in industrial relations, workers’ representatives and the employer meet and sit across the table as equals. This fundamental fact Minister Henry refused to accept.

The Union’s reaction to such posturing on the part of the government, saw it  issuing an ultimatum to government in 2017 to take strike action. President David Granger sought to intervene to avoid this outcome; it should be said that his intervention represented a clear departure from what is prescribed in the Avoidance and Settlement of Dispute Agreement. In October 2017 the President established a High Level Task Force to look into the issues of better salary and working conditions. The task force included representatives of the government – notably from Ministries of Finance, the Presidency, Communities, and Education – and the Union.

The Task Force examined the Union’s proposal and made recommendations. The recommendations included 40 percent increase of salary in the first year (2016) and five percent for each year following. That Report was handed to the Government in February 2018 and for months its representative remained mum. It was not until the Union threatened and proceeded on strike (a constitutional right) on 27th August that President Granger, at a press conference on 30th August, announced that the Report was found to be “deficient,” and Government is not looking at a multi-year agreement but only for the year 2018.

The President also said the Government is looking at ways to fund an increase but not at 40- percent. This announcement reiterates Roopnarine’s 2016 statement, and apparently paid scant regard to the recommendation of the technicians on the Task Force who said it is doable. Further, the level of deception cannot foster good industrial relations. Some in high office became angry that the teachers proceeded on industrial action, describing it as selfish and uncaring and accusing teachers and the union of having a political agenda. These persons ignored the incivility and disrespect for the Collective Bargaining process, and the hard fact that it is the absence of good faith on the part of the employer that created the environment for a conflict that never should have been.

If the government knew it couldn’t enforce all the Task Force’s recommendations, it should have engaged the Union. Since the President inserted his presence into the negotiating process when that report was made available, his became the responsibility to bring the parties together and discuss same with them. Instead, that responsibility was delegated to the Minister who the Union has problems with.  As Head of State and Head of Government, President Granger installed himself in the process of finding a resolution, taking a course that led to the union challenging his position, and leading to a loss of confidence in his ability to bring closure to a critical issue.

Last Thursday, 5th September, the strike was called off after the Employer and Union agreed to Terms of Resumption and the establishment of an Arbitration Tribunal to address the contentious issue of better salary and working conditions. The Union and the employer are to return on Tuesday, 11th September to work out the modalities for Arbitration. This nation cannot blink at this critical hour, given past experiences of governments not honouring commitment.

The Union leadership is urged to put its head down and prepare its proposal, along with finding the appropriate personnel to be its representative on the three-man panel. Equally, the Union should be actively participating in the process of sourcing and identifying a Chairperson who can objectively lead in the deliberation of the issue. The action by the employer in setting up the arbitration and the implementation of its recommendations will prove whether the coalition’s campaign promise to respect Collective Bargaining was sincere or yet another cynical ploy to get into office.