Gov’t, teachers for more wage talks today

-union says strike plans remain

Mark Lyte

The executive of the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) has agreed to meet with the Ministry of Education today at 2 pm on protracted wage talks but union President Mark Lyte maintains that strike action is still scheduled to begin on August 27.

“They have invited us; we indicated that we wanted to discuss the recommendations of the task force and to see what new proposal is put on the table but the union will not withdraw anything,” he said referring to the union’s declared intention to engage in industrial action.

Lyte’s comment clashes with directives delivered to the union yesterday by Minister within the Ministry of Social Protection Keith Scott.

In a letter addressed to Lyte and released to media last evening Scott, who directs the operations of the Department of Labour, stated that “normal and enlightened labour management relations practices dictate that negotiations should not be conducted in an atmosphere of duress…that means that a threat or notice of strike must be unequivocally withdrawn.”

The letter dated August 15 is a response to the union’s letter of August 10. Lyte indicated last night that the GTU is not yet in receipt of the correspondence and therefore cannot respond to its contents.

Scott, in the letter, cautioned the union that the path they have taken to inform government of contemplated industrial action may be incorrect and therefore renders the action “illegal, null and void.”

“For Strike notice to be valid and effective it must be issued directly to an employer who is deemed to be a proper party. I don’t think the Minister within the Ministry of Social Protection can be properly defined as the employer or proper party in the instant case,” he wrote.

The Minister called on the union to acknowledge a plea from Minister of Education Nicolette Henry to “keep engaged.”

According to Scott, a meeting between the two sides on Monday ended on the understanding that discussions between the parties would continue shortly, therefore the union’s threat of industrial action is premature and a complete breach of faith.  Henry has expressed similar sentiments in a statement which Lyte has described as laced with inaccuracies.  Henry’s statement had adverted to the enlisting of a “specialist” to work out wage increases.

“There was never an agreement for a follow up meeting nor an agreement for a specialist to decide on wage increases. The executive must always return to its members for directives on the way forward in such matters and that is what we did. Our intention was to wait until General Council [August 29] but the members said no,” Lyte stated.

Scott has further advised that should the Ministry of Education invite the union for continued discussions prudent industrial relations practices dictate that they accept the invitation, attend any scheduled meeting and withdraw their notice of industrial action.

The union says that while it will attend the meeting they will not withdraw the notice and have already informed the Ministry that they are willing to return to the negotiating table if government is willing to accept or at least address the recommendations of the High Level Task Force.

“Bring a counterproposal of percentages to the table don’t insult us with ball park sums which are far from adequate,” Lyte stressed.

Condemned

Meanwhile long-time trade unionist Lincoln Lewis has condemned the APNU+AFC administration for embarking on a course of action they would not have countenanced while in opposition.

He drew attention to a request in Scott’s letter to the union that they lodge a copy of the Recognition Agreement between them and the Ministry of Education with the office of the Chief Labour Officer.

According to Lewis this request is akin to a threat to de-recognise the union.

“What this government is doing is showing how ruthless they are. They are signalling to the union that if they do not find or can’t produce a copy of that recognition agreement they will not recognise them as a negotiating party but it really is only the members who can de-recognise a union. The Ministry of Education has consistently engaged this union on behalf of teachers, there are signed agreements between the two parties therefore a request for the recognition agreement can only be viewed with suspicion,” Lewis argued.

Last Thursday, teachers from across the country indicated that a complete withdrawal of services for the period August 27th to September 7th should be communicated to the Ministry, unless there is a favourable response to both salary and non-salary requests.

Documentation provided by Lyte to the teachers showed that in deciding to offer a ballpark figure of $700 million to facilitate an increase in salaries for all teachers based on the current salary scale, the government ignored that a 40% increase on 2015 salaries had been hammered out last year by the task force.

The union had initially requested a 40% increase in 2016, a 45% increase in 2017, 50% in 2018, 50% in 2019 and 50% in 2020, but compromised during negotiations and agreed to accept a 40% increase to serve as a base from 2016, with a 5% incremental increase for each remaining year of the agreement.

The last multi-year agreement, which was negotiated with the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) government, came to an end in 2015 and the union has been attempting since then to negotiate a new one for the period 2015 to 2020.

During this three-year period, teachers did not receive the annual clothing allowance nor did government implement the de-bunching programme that was agreed to. The task force had, however, agreed to honour these requests yet the union was told on Thursday that government will make available a ballpark figure of $200 million to facilitate a de-bunching exercise for teachers for the new school year of 2018/2019.

The union has refused to accept this counterproposal, stating that the amount allocated did not cater for the years signed and agreed to previously by the government and noting that the previous Permanent Secretary signed an agreement to honour the de-bunching payment from 2011.    

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