No progress in teachers talks, strike closer

-GTU pressing for arbitration

GTU President Mark Lyte speaking to the press after the meeting (Department of Public Information photo)

Talks on the looming teachers strike ended without resolution yesterday as the GTU is pressing for arbitration while the Labour Department is contending that conciliation between the union and the government must be exhausted first.

Yesterday’s talks were adjourned with no resumption date fixed making it more likely that teachers will be on strike on Monday, the first day of the new school year.

The Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) said it is willing to call off the planned strike to back its demand for a 40 per cent increase in salaries if the Education Ministry agrees to arbitration and foregoes the conciliation process. However,  the ministry and the conciliator – the Labour Department of the Ministry of Social Protection – are insisting that the process move forward though conciliation in keeping with “the rules and regulations” of resolving industrial relations issues. 

The two sides in the meeting (Department of Public Information photo)

“The ball is in their court. We indicated to them that if they call us midnight tonight we would be ready” to call off the strike, GTU President Mark Lyte said.

The Ministry of Education issued a one-sentence statement yesterday which said, “The Ministry of Education is requesting that the process move forward in keeping with the rules and regulations.”

In a statement yesterday, the Ministry of Social Protection said: “At the meeting the GTU maintained that it could not proceed to participate in the Conciliation talks under the Ministry of Social Protection because its Officials were involved at the earlier bilateral level…Alternatively, they (the GTU) who said that they were prepared to call off the Strike expressed a preference for Arbitration instead of Conciliation.

“Reacting to that suggestion the Ministry of Social Protection maintained that the grievance procedures as contained in the Collective Labour Agreement (CLA) subsisting between the Parties provides for the exhaustion of Conciliation before Arbitration can be contemplated.

“The Ministry of Social Protection also maintained, that before any progress could be made at Conciliation, the current Strike Action initiated by the Union must be called after a Memorandum containing Terms of Resumption has been signed by the Parties…

“Since the GTU could not find favour with possible Terms of Resumption facilitating the termination of the strike and the progression of Conciliation the meeting was adjourned to a time and date to be determined shortly”.

The GTU is maintaining that the conciliation process be skipped as the conciliators actively participated in the wage talks

sitting on the government side.

Arbitration would see the appointment of an independent chairman and representatives from the two sides to decide on the outstanding issues. The outcome would be binding on both parties.

Conciliation is an extension of negotiations between the two sides under the aegis of the Department of Labour.

Lyte spoke with the media after the 70-minute meeting called by the Department of Labour, to initiate the process of conciliation.

GTU General Secretary Coretta McDonald read the union’s  position which said that the union was proposing that the strike be called off under five conditions.

The conditions are, “There shall be no victimization by either party. There shall be no loss of pay and seniority, the extant issues be referred to an arbitration panel. The chairmanship (of the panel) shall be agreed upon before the resumption of work; and the status quo ante shall be respected by everyone involved in this situation.”

The suggested terms of reference for the arbitration panel are, to inquire into the dispute that led to industrial action taken by the GTU from August 7, to receive evidence from the parties and make an award that is just and on the evidence taken, and the award shall be final and binding on both the ministry and the union.          

Coming out of the meeting, Lyte said, “They (the ministry) are insisting that they want conciliation. We are insisting that the conciliation process has been compromised which to some extent has been admitted by the Ministry of Labour. It is the Ministry of Education now to decide to meet the GTU’s terms. Once those terms are met, we are prepared to call the strike off immediately should those conditions be satisfied.”

Sticking to arbitration

The union was sticking to arbitration, he said, “because the conciliators ought to be coming from the Department of Labour and they would have compromised their position by being at the two meetings that were held for negotiations.”

The GTU’s statement, McDonald read, said that the Minister of Social Protection Amna Ally, the Labour Department’s political head, Minister Keith Scott, Chief Labour Officer Charles Ogle and labour advisor Francis Carryl compromised “the act, spirit and intent of conciliating” by advocating on the Education Ministry’s behalf.    

If the Education Ministry decides to go to arbitration, Lyte said, the terms of reference would decide the duration of the arbitration process. Once it is agreed on, it should not be more than two months.

Asked if the ministry gave an explanation why it wanted conciliation, Lyte said, “I don’t think a clear position was brought to the table initially, hence we were asked to step out for them to decide who was leading the team. I believe they will go back to their principals and they will decide on our proposed position and return to us with a definite answer.”

Step out

Twelve minutes into the meeting the GTU representatives were asked to step out of the meeting to give the Labour Department and the Education Ministry time to talk together. After about seven minutes the GTU members were called back into the meeting. At 2.15 pm both the GTU and the Education Ministry representatives were asked to leave the meeting to give the Labour Department officials an opportunity to confer among themselves. At 2.27 pm they were called back into the meeting. The meeting ended at about 2.50 pm.    

Noting that the meeting was “very cordial”, Lyte said, the union was hopeful there will be a resolution. He asked teachers to remain resolute behind the GTU on the way forward.

“Our position remains the same. If it goes to arbitration, we don’t have a saying on the issue,” he said, noting that at one point the union was willing to negotiate downward of the 40 percent.

As he left the meeting’s venue, Chief Education Officer Marcel Hutson when asked about the meeting’s outcome said, “I can’t comment on this right now. We are continuing to meet.”

Asked about the prospects of a resolution to the impasse, Hutson said “Our PR (Public Relations) will release information.”

Asked about the ministry’s position, he said, “I want my children in school. We want our children in school. That is my position.”

When asked about the ministry’s position, Acting Permanent Secretary Adele Clarke who was entering a vehicle said, “We will issue a press release.” Asked if the release was going to be issued yesterday, she said, “Yes.”

Stabroek News was yesterday unable to contact anyone from the ministry’s public relations department, however, personal assistant to the Minister of Education Mondale Smith quoted the Ministry of Education’s PR Department as saying of the GTU’s stance, “The Ministry of Education is requesting that the process move forward in keeping with the rules and regulations.”

The Ministry of Education’s representatives also included Human Resources Manager Jackie Simon. Chief Labour Officer Charles Ogle presided over the meeting that included Assistant Chief Labour Officer Karen Van Sluytman and labour consultant Francis Carryl.

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