‘If you can’t pay us right, we will stay in the streets’

The crowd cheering on as General Secretary of the Guyana Teachers’ Union, Coretta McDonald made her remarks at the meeting in the packed Mackenzie High School auditorium

As hundreds of striking teachers in Linden and the surrounding environs took to the streets again to protest for better wages and working conditions, Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) General Secretary Coretta McDonald vowed that they were prepared to continue industrial action for as long as it takes to secure a “proper” offer or have the labour dispute referred to arbitration.

Armed with placards and umbrellas, a gathering of more than 800, which comprised both teachers and parents, endured the scorching heat to protest outside of the Education Ministry building in the town yesterday.

They later crowded the Mackenzie High School, where McDonald was adamant that they would not be “bullied” by the government.

“Let me tell you this, teachers: If we don’t stand now, we can’t stand anymore,” McDonald said to loud cheers and applause from the crowd that was packed tightly in the school auditorium.

“We are not only registering and paving the way for ourselves but we are paving the path for those trainee teachers, we are paving the path for our children, we are paving the path for other public sector workers, and we want them to know that because we are teachers and we create all professions we have to pave the path,” McDonald added as loud cheers erupted again.

She explained that the fact that Minister within the Ministry of Social Protection Keith Scott apologised yesterday after calling teachers selfish and uncaring shows that the government is “almost there.” (See other story on page 2)

McDonald also attempted to address misinformation that she said is being peddled around the dispute between about the situation between the GTU and the government.

“They are peddling a whole lot of information out there that the GTU is demanding 40 percent and without 40 [percent] we are not prepared to work. Lies. Let them understand that a proposal is just what it is, a proposal. And a proposal says it is negotiable. We can talk around it and that is what we are prepared to do but they are not prepared to talk around it and they want to bully us,” McDonald said as the crowd erupted again.

She noted that they teach their students in school to not allow anyone to bully them and the teachers will be emulating those same lessons. “We will not be bullied,” she declared, before adding that if government cannot come with “something proper,” then the union wants to go to arbitration. She added that even if they have to continue the protesting for another week or another month, they will.

“When we go to the bank, we can’t carry care and selflessness and consideration to the bank to pay your mortgages. When we go to the supermarkets, we can’t carry ‘good teacher’ and ‘teacher does spend long in school’ to the supermarkets. We have to go with the dollars and so we are saying to them if you are not prepared to pay us right, we will stay in the streets… We know is not long from now they will want me and you, they will want us to work for those long hours,” she stated, while highlighting that they will continue their protest actions throughout the week and if they don’t see any positive communication from the government by Friday, they will march their way to Georgetown.

Loud cheers erupted again and the crowd began chanting, “We going to town! We going to town! We going to town!”

After the meeting, the teachers resumed their protest at the education office.

‘Not a political thing’

One of the more vocal teachers at the meeting and in the protest line, Vanessa Kissoon, who has been in the profession for more than two decades, told Stabroek News that she wanted to applaud the union for sticking to its decision since the increase in wages was long overdue for teachers.

She added that while the GTU’s support for the teachers is unwavering, the teachers support for the union will also be the same. “We have, also, not just teachers, [but] parents who’ve been supporting us and from yesterday to today we still have our numbers and we will continue this until we get something coming from the government. That is the position that we and the union agree on,” Kissoon, a former APNU MP said.

She also explained that Minister Scott’s statements on Friday would have “put the icing on the cake” and pushed teachers, who were unsure of whether to protest or not, over the line.

Stokely Lane, another teacher who has given the country more than two decades of service, said he is very disappointed at the way the situation is playing out and that they are not only fighting for an increase in wages but other benefits and better working conditions for the teachers throughout the country.

“In some schools, you find that you don’t have enough washrooms for the students and teachers, so we are struggling, trying to make ends meet in the system and then persons in the higher “authority” are trying to disrespect us. I am going to say I don’t deal with politics, I deal with reality. The issue, this thing is not a political thing, but an issue that teachers have been going through for the past 20 years,” Lane said, while pointing out that if the teachers are comfortable, then the students will be better served in classrooms.

He also emphasised that at the end of the day the teachers also need to be paid livable wages since they have bills, loans and other expenses to pay like other working-class citizens of the country. He told the other protestors that they need to work together and would “hold it up” until they get what they are demanding.

Other teachers present also explained that in addition to their overwhelming workload, sometimes they also have to spend their own monies to fund learning aids and sometimes to assist students.

“I spent over $25,000 a month to travel to teach and over the 18 years I have been teaching I have not seen any improvements,” one teacher said. She explained that despite thoughts about leaving the profession many times, her love for the job has prevented her from going.

“I taught the last CSEC [Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate] class and children were living at me practically. I had to find things for them to eat and ensure they got home safe but the government not thinking about that. I had to use my own funds for teaching aids and what’s not. If teachers were so uncaring and unfair, they would never do what they do,” another explained.

While the support from parents around the country has been uneven, with some publicly standing against the teachers’ actions, the parents in Linden came out their numbers yesterday and showed their support.

“It was part of an action waiting to happen. …They [government] could’ve done something–at least give a small amount, piece by piece, if you can’t afford the whole thing. ’Cause is you promise two years ago you are going to raise the pay and is reasonable what they doing. Without a teacher, none of us would be here. Without teachers there wouldn’t be any ministers,” one parent, who identified himself as Mark, said, while adding that he did not send any of his children to school.

Another, Garvin Blande, also said that he fully supports the teachers’ strike since “from what I’ve seen in the past is that if you don’t protest you wouldn’t get anything in Guyana and it seems as though the people in authority don’t have no concern.” Blande also noted that while he is of the opinion that all public servants should see an increase in their salaries, given the high cost of living, the teachers deserve it the most.

In addition to the parents, the teachers also related that they have been getting enormous support from the community itself and yesterday the bus operators provided them with water and even joined their protest.

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