Gov’t creates new crisis in teachers’ negotiation by imposing a chairperson

Lincoln Lewis

By Lincoln Lewis

Lincoln Lewis brings more than three decades of local, regional and international trade union experience. He has served in the capacities of 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).

There is grave concern in the trade union community that the APNU+AFC administration is deliberately courting unprovoked confrontation with the working class. The goal of the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU), since November 2015, is to negotiate, through the Collective Bargaining process, a new multi-year package that addresses salary and non-salary benefits. Last Tuesday, 25th September, the GTU was engaging in the process with the Ministry of Education (MoE) – the teachers’ employer – to arrive at agreement in the naming of a chairperson in order to establish an arbitration panel, as agreed to by the parties on the 6th September 2018 with the signing of the Terms of Resumption that brought the strike to an end.

While the parties were engaging in this process, Minister Keith Scott entered the room and interrupted the engagement to announce that Dr Leyland Lucas, whom he had in tow, was appointed the chairman of the panel. Let’s put aside Minister Scott’s crassness and examine the germane issue. Scott is the Minister within the Ministry of Social Protection and assigned the duty of overseeing the Department of Labour, which it must be said, is not equivalent to a Ministry of Labour. According to the Official Gazette, Minister Amna Ally is legally the minister responsible for the Department of Labour, which therefore means any action of Scott has to have the consent of Ally.

There is no Law of Guyana, legal Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) or Terms of Resumption by the GTU and MoE that allows for Minister Scott or Ally to impose a chairperson to constitute a panel that has been agreed upon by the two parties. What we’re witnessing is a seeming comfort on government’s part to operate in a sea of ignorance on an industrial relations matter. Government has been deferring to making decisions based on gut-feelings and is failing to understand how the present arbitration ought to be constituted, and what the Law and MoU say about the constituting of a panel.

The arbitration arrangement entered into by the GTU and MoE is of a voluntary nature. It falls within the purview of the 1990 Avoidance and Settlement of Dispute (A&SD) agreement. This agreement stipulates how the parties will arrive at a chairman. By signing the Terms of Resumption Agreement on the 6th September 2018, both parties have agreed they will go to arbitration consistent with the A&SD. It is a three-person panel, where the employer and Union each has a member, and where the chairperson is agreed to by the two. Had government paid attention to these factors, it would have respected that the spirit and intent of Collective Bargaining necessitate the two parties engaging in some give and take in arriving at the chairperson. Likewise, it could have been urging both to work together towards a speedy and satisfactory resolution.

Instead, government has throughout the process demonstrated a keenness to undermine the mechanism to bring about satisfactory resolution. Thinking it has the ability to outsmart the teachers through bullyism, it failed to recognise its antics cannot, and will not work. As an aside, there is the view the GTU should not have entered into a signed agreement to call off the strike until such time as there is agreement to the arbitration chairperson and the Terms of Reference (ToR) guiding same. This has been the approach applied in the past, though there is the view that the teachers did not hold steadfast to this path since they believe they were dealing with an ethical employer and wanted to demonstrate good faith. Ms Coretta McDonald, GTU General Secretary, reportedly told the online news outlet, Demerara Waves (25th September 2018) that it was a mistake not having the chairperson of the panel named and the ToR agreed upon before resumption.

On the 14th September, when the personnel from the MoE had their first meeting with the GTU which would have seen the submission of names for the chairperson, the GTU put forward three, which were all rejected by the MoE. The persons are Rashleigh Jackson, former Minister of Foreign Affairs; Dr Aubrey Armstrong, management consultant and chairman of the 1999 Public Service Arbitration Tribunal; and Jeffrey Thomas, who held ministerial portfolios in Labour, Housing and Regional Development. The MoE submitted the names of Derick Cummings and Glendon Harris, present employees of the government. The Union rightly rejected them on this ground because it allows for an incestuous relation with the employer which could compromise the process. 

None can doubt that Jackson, Thomas and Armstrong are more than fit and proper to objectively perform the duty as Chairperson, given their expertise and unique skills in dealing with issues that are people and worker-centred. Those MoE officials who turned up to engage the GTU had no political authority to make any decision outside of what they were instructed to do. They came with one mandate. That mandate was to reject all the names put forward by the Union and propose their two, expecting the Union to accept one. As submissive emissaries, void of power to explain when the Union asked for the justification in rejecting the names, the poor staff didn’t give a response. They could not for fear that had they said anything wrong, it could carry dire consequences for the future of their careers.

When the Union left the 14th September meeting, it was with the understanding that the parties would meet again shortly to continue the dialogue pertaining to the names submitted for consideration. But on that said day, the MoE wrote the Department of Labour stating the parties could not arrive at a decision and asking the Department to nominate someone to be the chairperson. The plot thickens. Rather than inviting the parties to continue dialogue on arriving at a chairperson, the Department of Labour invited the Union to come to a meeting on September 25th with the nominee to represent it on the panel.

It was at that September 25th meeting that Minister Scott brought Dr Lucas and declared that he has the authority, under some law, to appoint him as chairman. No one knows of this phantom law the Minister claims to have authority under. What is known is that the Minister failed to understand the MoE’s request can only be entertained as a nomination, because the parties are dealing with Voluntary Arbitration which expressly stipulates the Department of Labour making a nomination where there is no agreement on a chairperson. There is a difference between nominating and appointing which the Minister clearly does not get. 

When the MoE and the GTU presented more than one name for consideration during their deliberation, this was indicative that the parties understood what the process entails, but since it was the government’s desire to impose its chairman, it felt this could be done by telling the public the law grants such authority. The government is seeking to hide behind Section 4 of the Labour Law (Cap 98:01). This section talks about Compulsory Arbitration. Compulsory arbitration is where the Minister makes the decision as it relates to arbitration, with or without the consent of the parties that are involved, and under the said Law, can unilaterally name a chairperson. The GTU and MoE arbitration is voluntary not compulsory. Again, the Minister does not understand this. 

After Dr Lucas’ name was announced, the GTU, the Guyana Trades Union Congress and the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana publicly came out against the manipulation of the process. Stabroek News (28th September 2018) asked Lucas for a comment to the GTU asking that he “recuse” himself from the chairmanship; his response was “no comment on the matter.” The public outcries and call for adherence to time-honoured principles did not stop the Department of Labour from dispatching a letter to the GTU on Friday 28th September, stating that Lucas has been appointed Chairman and it is awaiting the Union’s nominee to the panel. This incident demonstrates how little the coalition government cares about respecting good industrial relations practices and the Law in the pursuit of achieving their end.

Last Tuesday, the GTU gave the Department of Labour and the MoE seven days to have the issue of the chairmanship corrected or its members shall proceed on industrial action. The Government’s cowardly response has been to threaten teachers – invoking among other things, the Terms of Resumption, its spirit and intent – not understanding that the 6th September Terms of Resumption dealt with a strike emanating from the Union’s call for increased salary and better working conditions.

What we have before us now is the imposition of a chairperson by Minister Scott, which brazenly breaches the 1990 Memorandum of Agreement that speaks to voluntary arbitration. The Government does not seem to understand that it is now faced with two separate issues – i) the breach of the Avoidance and Settlement of Dispute Memorandum between the GTU and MoE, and ii) increased salary and better working conditions for teachers. Though the two are interlinked, they will have to be treated separately. And whatever action the teachers now take is for the respecting of the sacred instrument, which is the 1990 MoU between the GTU and MoE which Scott has breached by imposing a Chairman for the arbitration.  

The teachers need our solidarity in ensuring they are treated with deserving respect and dignity by their employer and the Government of Guyana. Guyanese, home and abroad, must come together and raise our voice in unison against this new violation of our law and blatant transgression of workers’ rights.

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