GTU hopeful of arbitration results before school term ends

-Lyte says was prepared to accept 20% increase for initial year

Mark Lyte

The Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) is trusting that the establishment of an Arbitration Panel to settle the dispute over wages, benefits and working conditions does not become a drawn out process and that the three members will be identified before the end of next week so that the process can be concluded before the end of the school term.  

“We can’t sit here and know it won’t be dragged out but we are hoping for the best… the panel will be identified next week [and] we will be pushing for a timeframe of not more than two months,” GTU President Mark Lyte told reporters at a press conference yesterday. 

Asked why the union did not push to have the Terms of Reference (ToR) for the arbitration panel drafted before calling off the countrywide strike by teachers on Thursday, he noted that given the amount of time taken to settle of the Terms of Resumption, nearly four hours, they “thought it would be prudent to come back later for arbitration ToR.”

Following the announcement that the parties agreed to proceed to arbitration, the umbrella union body Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) said on Thursday that the ball is once again in the government’s court and shows another demonstration of the GTU to negotiate in good faith. “Government therefore has the responsibility to work with the Union in an environment of mutual respect and hammer out the Terms of Reference and modalities for arbitration,” GTUC said, while noting that as it stands the issues of improved salary and working conditions are yet to be resolved. As a result, it added that the trade union and society must remain vigilant until the issue has come to finality.

Following the agreement to end the strike, teachers were expected to return to the classroom yesterday, with full resumption slated for Monday.

For the most part, schools were operating normally yesterday and Lyte noted that all schools nationwide were open and functioning. Though some teachers opted to take the day to complete delayed preparation for the term, Stabroek News observed that some schools in Georgetown and on the East Coast were having normal sessions.

In Region Six, hundreds of teachers who were on strike returned to the various schools yesterday. The Berbice High School, New Amsterdam Multilateral Secondary School, Berbice Educational Institute, J.C Chandisingh and the Canje Secondary School saw classes being held as scheduled during the day.

Cumberland Primary School, Rose Hall Primary School and several other schools in the Upper Corentyne Area also saw attendance from teachers who were on strike.

One teacher from a New Amsterdam school told Stabroek News yesterday morning, “We always wanted to teach but had to support our union because we need an increase.”

Lyte noted that while the union had proposed an increase of 40% on 2015 salaries, it had been prepared to accept a 20% offer but it is now prepared to leave the matter in the hands of the arbitration panel.

“At the time, the union had thought about 20% as being a reasonable offer on the 2015 salary, but that being said this is academic information I’m giving you now because whenever it goes to arbitration, it is out of the hands of the union or the Ministry of Education [MoE] and it rests in the hands of the arbitrators so us saying what percentage we would like to have is no longer a factor,” he explained.

The union, Lyte indicated, is willing to look outside of Guyana to its regional affiliates for its own representative on the arbitration  panel as it seeks to make sure the candidate can escape accusations of bias.

“The challenge is finding someone who will bring a neutral balance to the team; who can’t be politically influenced,” he said. 

The terms signed on to by the parties to the dispute for resumption indicated that there would be no victimisation by either side, no loss of pay and seniority, and the status quo ante, that is, the conditions in relation to wages, salaries and non-salary benefits which existed before the strike, would prevail.

Lyte yesterday called on all members to immediately report any attempt at victimisation or cutting of pay.

Most importantly, the terms indicate that within 24 hours after full resumption the parties will meet to determine the terms of reference for the Arbitration Panel, as guided by the 1990 Memorandum of Agreement between the MoE and the GTU.

Asked to explain the parameters of the dispute which the parties will take to the panel, Lyte noted yesterday that it will include all financial aspects of the GTU’s 2016-2020 multi-year proposal. These include outstanding salary matters, de-bunching due to the union since 2011, uniform allowance and other allowances.

Neutral look

He opined that the panel will take a neutral look at what the economy can afford and offer what is needed by teachers to have a livable wage.

Since 2015, the union has been attempting to negotiate a multi-year salary and non-salary benefit package with the APNU+AFC government but negotiations have dragged on. An October, 2017 breakdown in negotiations and a declaration by the union that its members would proceed on strike led to an intervention by President David Granger, who set up a High Level Task Force to continue negotiations and reach a consensus.

The Task Force met for five months and recommended that Cabinet consider granting teachers a 40% increase on 2015 salaries and a 5% increase for each of the four remaining years of the agreement. However, citing the high cost of the recommended increase, $4 billion for teachers and $10 billion if extended to all public servants, the administration rejected the report of the Task Force as deficient.

Teachers were instead offered a $700 million ball park figure for 2018 salary increases. This was rejected and the GTU decided to engage in strike action beginning in the pre-term on August 27th.

The strike action gained momentum on the first day of the school year with thousands of teachers withdrawing their services and taking to the streets to protest this week, while the MoE implemented a contingency plan which saw student-teachers, retired teachers and volunteers take to the classrooms.

However, with the number of teachers engaged in strike action increasing every day, the Ministry on Wednesday signaled its intention to agree to the union’s demand to proceed to arbitration and the two parties met on Thursday.

The MoE had previously sought to have the dispute conciliated by the Department of Labour but the union pushed for arbitration, arguing that both the Minister responsible for Labour, Keith Scott, and the Chief Labour Officer Charles Ogle had compromised their ability to act as conciliators by sitting at the negotiation table on behalf of government.

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