Teachers’ wage talks

President Granger’s statement on Friday at his third press conference since taking office three years ago that the government is now seeking to mobilise funds to make a better pay offer to teachers is cause for great concern.  It would mean that the government made no reasonable budgetary or contingency provisions for the teachers though it had been well aware for two years that it could face a substantial demand following the end of a five-year wages agreement struck with the PPP/C government. 

It is further troubling that the government is not prepared to countenance a multi-year package which had been on the table from the outset, had formed the basis of prolonged negotiations and which makes good sense as it introduces stability in the relationship between teachers and the government. Surely it must have occurred to the President and the Finance Minister that the 2018 budget should have catered for a significant award to the teachers considering that a task force had been established on their pay in October 2017. The President mentioned on Friday that the mobilising of funds also had to be done to finance the severance pay of thousands of sugar workers – another example of the government being unable to plan financially for its own policies.

Scrounging around now for money to up the offer is consistent with the disdainful manner in which the government has addressed the demand of the teachers through their union, the GTU. It would be fair to say that the GTU itself has been weak and irresolute in prosecuting its just demand for wage increases. Its executive allowed the government to toy with it until teachers at the grass roots began to militantly apply pressure for action. This was clear at this year’s May Day rally when the President got a rough reception from chanting teachers at the GTU headquarters.  The militancy of the teachers has also been seen at outreach meetings that the union has held around the country with its members to advise of strike action.

When one considers the sequence of events in the negotiations between the two sides, it is clear that the government simply wanted to dictate a figure to the teachers and have them accept it.

The union submitted its proposal for a new multi-year agreement after the expiration of the 2010-2015 agreement on December 31, 2015. Negotiations for the new multi-year agreement began in January 2016 and continued with sporadic meetings for 22 months. In May 2016 the union had declared that if the then stalled negotiations didn’t continue within the next month then teachers would take “drastic action”. This action never materialized nor did the negotiations continue beyond a few meetings. Instead in September 2016, teachers like all other public servants were treated to differentiated increases, ranging from 10% to 1%.

At the time GTU’s General Secretary Coretta McDonald had referred to the increase as an imposition.

“We were assured at the beginning of this year that unions would’ve been able to exercise their right to collective bargaining. That is not how collective bargaining works,” she had told Stabroek News.

She had explained that the union had been having regular meetings with the Ministry of Education until the first week in August 2016, after which the next three scheduled meetings simply did not happen. Beginning in January 2016, meetings were held on January 22, February 12, April 13, May 4, May 13, June 3, June 15 and July 20. No agreements were reached at any of these meetings.

The meandering by both sides continued until October, 2017 when the teachers threatened to go on strike in the midst of the new school term.  It was then on October 30, 2017 that a pivotal moment arrived when President Granger announced that the two sides had agreed to the establishment of a High-Level Task Force comprising on one hand, representatives from the Ministries of Education, Finance, Communities, Public Service and the Presidency and, on the other hand, representatives from the Union. 

This is the task force that came up with the controversial recommendation of a 40% wage hike for teachers in the first year of what was to have been a multi-year agreement. It was the understanding of observers that given the unproductive 22 months of talks up to that point, that the recommendations of this task force would be accepted by both sides given that they were represented at the highest levels – in the case of the government by the Finance Secretary of the Ministry of Finance. It would defy all norms of industrial relations practices that this task force’s recommendations would be rejected by the government but that is exactly what happened. President Granger on Friday stated that the task force’s work was “deficient”. How was it that the President was able to decide unilaterally that it was “deficient”? It took months for the government to make this declaration which made a complete mockery of the work of the task force on which four government ministries were represented.  Where are the terms of reference for this task force? How could the government simply overturn its findings? Why did the union allow this to happen?

Teachers now have to wait until the government “finds” money to up its offer. If this how the government is going to conduct itself when oil revenues begin to flow it may be best to sub-contract our governance to those who may know better. 

The disgraceful manner in which the teachers’ negotiations have been handled underlines the duplicity of the government. On May 1st 2015, then Opposition Leader Granger made a solemn pledge to restore free collective bargaining which the PPP/C had trampled on for years with the acquiescence of public sector unions. The trampling continues. Free collective bargaining is yet to make an appearance under the APNU+AFC government and the breach is all the more severe as the president himself had made this commitment.

Further, the government will be continuously haunted by its unthinking decision in 2015 to provide an undeserved 50% salary increase to its senior Cabinet ministers and sizeable hikes to other ministers and MPs. Did it really think that other categories of workers would ignore this?

Finally, it should not even be a matter for discussion. Minister in the Ministry of Social Protection, Keith Scott and his department participated in the wage talks on the government’s side. They obviously cannot conciliate wage talks between the teachers and the government. The process should therefore immediately move to arbitration.

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