The Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) has laid the blame for the current strike squarely at the feet of President David Granger, who it says has refused to act on the recommendations from a joint task force he set up last October to resolve the dispute over teachers’ wages and conditions of service.
“I know the President meant well when the Task Force was put in place [and now] the reality is the recommendations are before us and the government must act on it,” GTU President Mark Lyte yesterday told a press conference, where he also announced that the union would pay teachers who proceed on strike.
Following the breakdown of negotiations between the union and the Ministry of Education last year, President Granger established the High-Level Task Force, comprising representatives from the government and the union. On October 31st, 2017, Cabinet met and agreed on the composition and terms of reference of the Task Force.
The members, including Finance Secretary Hector Butts, were asked to examine the union’s draft Multi-Year agreement for 2016 to 2020 in its entirety; consider each proposal made and make recommendations as deemed necessary; review the aspects of the Draft Agreement that have been accepted to date by the Ministry of Education; identify outstanding issues and to arrive at agreed terms; and review, and consider the recommendations made by the Commission of Inquiry into the Education System relevant to matters to be addressed in the draft Multi-Year Agreement.
General Secretary Coretta McDonald noted yesterday that as part of negotiations within the task force, the union compromised on several issues and now feels disrespected that government will not hold up its part of the bargain.
“I know the expectation was that the task force would’ve torn to pieces the proposal by GTU but they were there, they did their research and they agreed on some of the positions we had. The GTU bent forward and backward and we came to positions that we agreed on in that report submitted…for government [who had] their persons there, whom they would’ve sent with a mandate… to now ignore that report is saying a whole lot to us,” McDonald told the press conference.
One of the union positions, which the task force agreed to, was a 40% increase on 2015 salaries and a 5% increase thereafter. The union has consistently maintained that while it has proposed an initial increase of 40%, it is willing to negotiate for a lower percentage that would be more acceptable to government.
Yesterday Lyte was asked if the union was willing to lower that percentage into the single digits—a question which met with vehement disapproval from the General Council representatives present.
“We are willing to go to single digits for 2017 forward but for the first year of this proposal  we need a double digit increase,” he stressed.
Meanwhile, the union’s executives also announced that the General Council has voted to offer strike relief to those teachers who engage in industrial action.
“All teachers who proceed on strike action will be compensated by the union,” Lyte said, while adding that the union has looked at its resources and is convinced that they can go a fair way.
“We can go months into this, covering as many teachers that proceed on the strike. Right now, we don’t know the numbers but we can go months into this. We are in it for the long haul,” he said, before adding that if, for example, 3,000 teachers decide to strike, the union will be able to provide 50% of the lost wages.
Lyte added that commercial banks and hire-purchase creditors to whom teachers may be indebted will also be approached by the union for leniency.
Each pronouncement by the executive was met with rousing support from the General Council representatives who had travelled from across the country for a quarterly meeting yesterday.
Next door at Queen’s College, Education Minister Nicolette Henry was finding it difficult to garner similar support from parents, whom she met in an attempt to explain the contingency plans being put in place in case the strike action persists.
With the new school year slated to commence on September 3rd, the Education Ministry said Chief Education Officer Marcel Hutson told a meeting of parents and education officers in regions Five and Six on Monday that if teachers stay away from school next Monday, “the service of some 300 teachers from the Cyril Potter College of Education (CPCE) will be utilized. In addition to that, there are monitors across the regions who will ‘step-up to the plate’ to assist in the interim.”
Additionally, a Ministry press release said Hutson noted that “services of retired teachers and parents will also be used.”
At their meeting yesterday, the parents of Queen’s College students challenged the minister to explain how effective such a plan can possibly be.
“You send a teacher from Cyril Potter College to first form Queen’s College, the children will chew them up; same thing at Bishops’ [High School]; you have to know what you’re dealing with,” an incensed Michele Fraser argued, while another parent noted that based on the number of schools across the country, these teachers will not be enough.
Though Fraser’s argument appeared to be directed at understanding how trainees who have not yet had supervised teaching practice could handle difficult classes, the minister chose instead to defend the quality of education provided by CPCE.
She noted that most teachers in the public school system have been trained at the institution.
Another parent, Khemraj Narine, asked the minister to explain the cost of implementing the contingency plan versus granting the request from the GTU. The parent stressed that cost of living has significantly increased over the last couple of years and noted that trainee teachers might be incapable of handling nursery-aged children.
In responding to this concern, the minister noted that cost of living is a concern for everyone. The minister also attempted to argue that there was no parallel between the teachers’ request and the 50% increase granted to government ministers in 2015.
According to Henry, that 50% was a one off, while teachers are asking for increases every year. She also claimed that “at this point in time,” the number of teachers who have indicated that they will participate in strike action has not affected the ministry in a large way.
She stressed that on the first day of school education officers will visit to ascertain the staff strength at each institution and make determinations about the intervention needed.
Meanwhile, the two sides will meet today at the Ministry of Social Protection for legally mandated conciliation talks though the GTU has indicated that it wishes to go to arbitration.
“The Minister [Keith Scott] made several pronouncements, pleading with the union to accept the offer and that in itself for us is a compromise [of his position] if the minister is going to call us to agree on something further. At the second meeting, the minister did not attend but we had the Chief Labour Officer who also pronounced on the union, pleading with the union to sign off on what was agreed already so we felt that their position has been compromised even before we reached the stage of conciliation,” Lyte said.