New teachers’ strike looms with backing of united unions

-as gov’t stands by appointment of arbitration chair

The Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) yesterday signalled its intention to resume industrial action after government failed to meet an ultimatum to rescind its unilateral appointment of a chairman of the arbitration panel to rule on salary and non-salary benefits for teachers.

“Strike action is always a last resort and we thought having given the administration an ultimatum of seven days, that we would have had a favourable response. Instead, the Minister with responsibility for Labour (Keith Scott) would have issued appointment letters to the nominee from the Ministry of Education (MoE) and the chairperson in the form of Dr Leyland Lucas. We have rejected those proposals,” GTU President Mark Lyte told a news conference yesterday.

“In fact…we would be calling our members out for the second time to be engaged in strike action. Our members are ready and they are willing to continue the fight, to continue the struggle,” he added.

Lyte addressed the media at the GTU auditorium as the seven-day period set for government to rescind Lucas’ appointment expired. He said the GTU’s membership has expressed support for another round of industrial action as indicated at a meeting on Tuesday in Region Ten (Upper Demerara/Upper Berbice). Support has also been expressed in regions Seven, Six, Five, Two, and One.

 “They are all up and ready. They would have sacrificed nine days in the first instance. They are prepared to see this through and to have the matter resolved in a way that would bring satisfaction,” he said. Members will be informed about the resumption of strike action, he noted.

The Ministry of Social Protection, under which the Labour Department falls, when contacted by Stabroek News yesterday, said that the matter is now in the hands of the tribunal, while the MoE again warned of consequences should the teachers resume industrial action.

However, the GTU, this time around has received the full support of the umbrella organisations, the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) and Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG), who warned that government’s actions will have consequences throughout the society.

Speaking on Lucas’ appointment yesterday, Lyte said, “We believe that a neutral person should be nominated for both sides to agree on to chair the panel. I am of the view that there are sinister plans afoot to thwart the process and not to allow fairness and equity to prevail.” He added that

Lucas should voluntarily recuse himself from the appointment so the arbitration process can go forward.

Scott’s appointment of a chairperson without first bringing him as a nominee, he said, made it appear as though the ministry does not understand the meaning of the term “to nominate.”

Cause for concern

“We not only seem to have a literacy problem in our classroom but we seem have a literacy problem even among our serving ministers. This is a cause for concern for us as educators. We may have to start the process from the top. We all are aware and the general public knows that ‘nominate’ means ‘to put forward’. You can examine the MoA (the April 10, 1990 Memorandum of Agreement on the Avoidance and Settlement of Disputes avoidance, signed between the MoE and the GTU) and you will see that ‘nominate’ has been used all the time. I don’t know what interpretation has been used by the minister,” Lyte said. 

The GTU President shared the press conference with GTUC General Secretary Lincoln Lewis and FITUG General Secretary Dawchan Nagasar, who pledged their umbrella organisations’ physical and other means of support to the GTU and teachers in whatever industrial action they take.

FITUG like the GTUC, Nagasar said, has issued statements and letters in support of the GTU and whatever is requested, “We will discuss and move from there.”

In terms of physical support, Lewis said, “We will have to consider in whatever form the GTU requests. I believe that when you talk of physical support, all you see is strike, but as a trade unionist, I see industrial action as a number of measures that can bring an employer to the table.”

Following last week Tuesday’s meeting at the Department of Labour, Lyte said the GTU indicated that it would give Scott seven days to rescind his appointment, failing which, the union would be taking industrial action. Scott appointed Lucas, the Dean of the School of Entrepreneurship and Business Innovation of the University of Guyana, to chair the three-member arbitration panel but the GTU rejected the appointment, claiming the union was not consulted.

To back its demand for moving the process from conciliation to arbitration in its bid to seek increases in salaries and better working conditions for teachers, the GTU led a nine-day teachers’ strike at the start of the academic year.   

On the proposed resumption of industrial action, the Department of Labour, Ministry of Social Protection, through a spokesman told Stabroek News yesterday, “The Ministry of Social Protection is advising that the matter is in the hands of the tribunal.”    

Meanwhile, the MoE reiterated yesterday that its position on industrial action remains the same as in the release issued last week. The release referred teachers to the MOA, noting that it states, “During the consideration of the matter in dispute under the grievance procedure, there shall be no strike, stoppage of work whether of a partial or general nature, go slow, boycott, picketing, retardation of production or any other interference with the Ministry’s operations by the Union, nor shall there be any lock out or any other form of interference by the Ministry. Both parties shall endeavour to maintain a state of normal Industrial Relations.”

As a result, the MoE said teachers “should note that any action which violates or is adverse to the above shall be illegal for which the Ministry will ensure that the appropriate consequences ensue.”

‘Disrespect at all levels’

On the notice, Lyte said, “We see no breach if we call our members out. As far as we are concerned, the arbitration panel and the terms of reference are the first two steps to setting arbitration on the trail. Arbitration in our view has not started as yet.”

Should government take legal action against the GTU, he said, “The GTU will have no other course but to walk the steps of the courts with them because we are prepared to ensure our members do not suffer in any way.”

On the MoE’s notice on protest actions, Lewis said, “When government can send out notices telling workers that if they go on strike, they are in breach of the law, it is because they do not understand that there are two issues in this case – salaries and improved working conditions, and the breach of the MoU of 1990.”

He said, “If we allow government and its employees to breach these things, there will be a time that we will have no say. It is for that reason we will support the GTU.”  On the appointments, Lewis said that the Labour Department imposing a chairman on a panel when the GTU entered into voluntary arbitration “smacks of disrespect at all levels of the democratic processes.”

The issue, he said, is a flagrant violation of fundamental rights and freedoms by the Government of Guyana and it impacts across the board, not only with its members, but across the society.

The 1990 avoidance and settlement of dispute agreement between the GTU and the ministry, he said, speaks to nominating of a person to be the chairman, nominating a representative of the ministry and nominating a representative of the GTU. Nominating is done in the first instance because that person will have to be accepted by everybody, he said.

“I have gone to arbitration five times and all five times, the ministry nominates,” he declared.

The GTU and the MoE, in the April 10, 1990 MoA, he said, agreed that the panel would comprise of a nominee from the GTU, one from the ministry and the chairperson to be mutually agreed on.

Lewis said that Scott and Minister of Social Protection Amna Ally mixed up Article Four of the Labour Act, which speaks to compulsory arbitration and which was not in keeping with the 1990 MoA between the MoE and the GTU.

“We have a serious problem, where for some reason people believe that they could fudge the law with impunity. It is for that reason that the GTUC from the first day, when the struggle started has made its position very clear that it will support the GTU to the max,” he said. “We will continue to work closely with them to make sure their struggle will not be in vain.”

 

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