The GTU strike ultimatum: It is the government that must ‘shift gears’

The first thing that should be said about last week’s notification of strike action by state-employed teachers, through their union, the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) is that the extent of the notice given by the Union allows sufficient time for a compromise to be arrived at, thereby sparing us the headache of having to see a new academic year begin with children unable to take their places in classrooms and in a situation where it becomes anyone’s guess as to when normalcy will be restored.

Part of the problem with industrial action is that it can – and frequently does – have the effect of altering the negotiating environment, pushing the protagonists – sometimes one side and other times both sides – towards a posture of bullishness, digging in, increasing the likelihood that the industrial action could become protracted.

The other point that should be made at this juncture is that government in Guyana, is usually not inclined to take kindly to industrial action against the state. When that happens, it has been inclined to play hardball in the negotiating process, going forward. Those altered conditions can make terms of resumption more difficult to reach. Meanwhile, in this instance and if the strike materializes, children will remain out of school.

The deficiencies in the teaching profession arising, in part, out of the abysmally poor remuneration afforded teachers, is one of the primary reasons (though certainly not the only one) for the crisis in our education system. It did not begin with this administration and the solution is a process. That does not, however, absolve the coalition government of the responsibility to at least begin to solve some of the problems.

Two of the important problems facing our teaching profession – and they are inter-related –  have to do, first, with the increasing awareness among our teachers of the yawning gap between what they give and what they receive, and secondly our failure to attract the highest qualified school leavers into teaching. Concerns continue to be raised regarding both the adequacy of the corps of lecturers at the Cyril Potter College of Education as well as (in some instances) the qualifications levels of the trainees. This newspaper has said before that once this trend continues we will eventually arrive at a point where the talent pool in the teaching profession may well decline to the point of crisis.

Much of the blame for this has to be placed at the feet of government. Over several decades the problems of the teaching profession have been largely ignored so that what now obtains is, for the most part, a function of official indifference to the importance of working incrementally to raise standards in the sector.

All of this must be seen in the context of the particular juncture of our development trajectory and the demands it makes on the standards of education from nursery to university and beyond. At all of these levels, our education system is in dire need of significant upgrading. There is every need to be concerned that there are a great many areas/disciplines in which we remain worryingly deficient to say nothing about the equipment and infrastructure crises afflicting the system. Sometimes, frankly, we appear to be caught fast in a condition of fooling ourselves about the real condition of our education system.

 The GTU says that its strike ultimatum has been served at the end of a protracted period of negotiations during which it has not gotten anywhere near enough in terms of concessions from government. Government on the other hand sometimes appears to negotiate from a sort of Ivory Tower vantage point, where a preoccupation with what it says is ‘affordability’ always seems to trump what one might call ‘the other realities,’ including those that have to do with us not being able to ‘not afford’ to cut teachers a much better deal. This posture would appear to be driven by the assumption that teachers can endure much more of the tough times that they have faced for years and, moreover, that they will not take strike action. That line of ‘logic’ is driven by a set of assumptions that are wedded to an anachronistic  socio-political environment. The GTU’s decision to take strike action, to say nothing about the strident rhetoric embedded in its media statement, makes that point both deliberately and unambiguously.

So far, the key decision-makers in the political administration appear to have kept their distance from the actual bilateral talks. Frankly, it is not apparent that those gathered around the table on the government’s side are the ones who are ‘calling the shots.’ Distancing the key players from routine discourses is not an uncommon negotiating strategy. Now that we are drifting inexorably towards a condition of brinkmanship, however, room for ‘sand dancing’ is close to exhaustion. A point may now have been reached where the government, particularly, must ‘shift gears,’ calling the union back to the negotiating table, this time to engage in an earnest crunching of numbers with a view to arriving at a compromise that is reflective of fairness and honesty. It is a question of, almost immediately, moving the situation in the direction of the best immediate-term settlement possible and in which arriving at an eventual full and final settlement within a reasonable and specific time frame is part of the immediate-term agreement.

 The GTU has said in a public statement that it has felt “disrespected” in the course of its negotiations with the administration and we suspect that this might have to do in some measure with the posture of aloofness, ‘run around’ and not infrequently, talking down that has been known to inform governments’ negotiating style. What is more, we believe that the GTU and the teachers themselves would not be averse to accepting what they consider an eminently reasonable starting point to eventual longer-term outcome which they are aiming at. Frankly, nowhere during these negotiations have we found them to be either intransigent on uncompromising. If anything, it is the opposite that has been true.

In a matter of this magnitude it is the government, more specifically, President Granger, we believe, who, in the circumstances, must strike a posture that changes the aura of the discourse.

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