My advice to the UG unions is premised on basic industrial relations practices

Dear Editor,

Reference is being made to the letter `Unless there is a change in GTUC’s stance on university matters, UG unions will withdraw from it’ (SN 30th May, 2019) signed by Dr. Jewel Thomas and Mr. Bruce Haynes, UGWU & UGSSA Executives. My recent two letters in the newspaper on issues pertaining to the University of Guyana (UG) were responses to allegations made by a writer who is not an employee of the UG or a member of the UG unions. As such what was said needs to be taken within that context, more particularly given that at the time of those responses the leadership of the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC), which yours truly was a part of, was in engagement with the said unions in an effort to resolve their expressed grievances.

Thus, the letter signed by Thomas and Haynes, both of whom are in discussions with the GTUC’s leadership, is more than passing strange. This notwithstanding, since the unions see it fitting to place the matter in the public domain, it is incumbent that the public has the benefit of hearing from me, one of the players identified as a source of their dissatisfaction. The undermentioned forms my response to theirs.

1.   It is the unions’ view that I “no longer [have] a grasp of the situation at the university, or the nature of the struggle in which the University of Guyana Unions are currently involved.”

My first engagement with Professor Ivelaw Griffith, Vice-Chancellor (VC) and Principal of the UG was in 2016. That engagement was the result of a complaint made by the unions that the university refused to pay the across-the-board (ATB) increase to some lecturers. I sought an engagement with the VC and the unions to ascertain the reason and to find a solution. It was revealed that those who would not have received the ATB salary were lecturers who failed to submit the students’ grades and graduation was scheduled within a fortnight. Among this group were persons identified as leaders of the two unions.

I advised management that it cannot withhold an ATB increase, which is different to that of an increase acquired through the performance evaluation process, and urged the unions to encourage their members to submit the students’ grades. At that meeting I also called on both parties to move to have a Collective Labaour Agreement (CLA) which will guide and regulate the relationship between them.

The unions have stated their advocacy “for an institution-wide commitment and adherence to principles of transparency, accountability and good governance.” This must be applauded and represented by all stakeholders, viz the UG Council, management, unions, workers, and students. Each group, individually and collectively, play(s) their role in ensuring the effective and efficient functioning of all and the institution. Where the unions have disagreement with the policy direction of the management and are calling for an audit, these matters can be raised under what is termed a “General Question” under the Avoidance and Settlement of Dispute Procedure which is normally enshrined in a CLA.

A trade union should have a CLA. Its Certificate of Recognition, which is provided by the Trade Union Recognition Board (TURB), copies are issued to the employer and trade union. As it relates to a trade union’s Articles of Association, elections, auditing of its records and other internal activities, access to them falls within the remit of its membership and such is protected by ILO Conventions Nos 87 and 98.

Mindful of the aforesaid, I have sought to impress upon the unions to know their rights and responsibility and get themselves in order. There remains concern that since the establishment of the Trade Union Recognition Act (1997) no Certificate of Recognition exists for the university unions, and three years hence a CLA has not been negotiated which has left salary and working conditions of the staff to the dictates of the university management. It should be said that though there exists no Certificate of Recognition, the fact that management has been engaging the unions constitutes acceptance of recognition, but the possession of a Certificate is always more advantageous. These points were brought to the attention of the unions.

In any relationship between a trade union and employer what is fundamental is putting that CLA in place, and the acquisition of this usually takes priority over any other activity. Outside of a CLA the grievances will fester and the environment will be more acrimonious. The role of the Department of Labour falls within the purview of the CLA’s Avoidance and Settlement of Dispute Procedure. My advice to the unions, which they take objection to, is premised on these basic industrial relations practices.

2. “The UG Unions’ dissatisfaction with the GTUC’s representative on the UG council is not a recent occurrence.” The unions, over the years, have engaged me on what they perceive as infractions on the part of our representative on the Council, Ivor English. Last year when the unions met with me to air their grievances about some decision-making/policy on the Council, they were advised as to the procedure they should adopt in having these matters addressed by the university. That advice has not been heeded and this is consistent with their right to either accept or reject.

With regards to the written charges made against English, the President, Coretta McDonald, advised the unions that English will have to be given the opportunity to respond, which was done.

3.  GTUC’s nominee’s “support for the vice-chancellor being paid in lieu of leave.” At the meeting with the unions on Wednesday 22nd May we advised that payment in lieu of leave was a practice in the private and public sectors. It therefore would have been unwise for the GTUC to undo a long-held principle and practice. The GTUC further advised that tactically it is to the unions’ advantage to use this opportunity to encourage their members to benefit from the practice.

On evaluation, there is a trade union principle that says, ‘if I am not evaluated then my performance must to be considered as good and I be remunerated.’ The issue of an evaluation for Griffith who is an employee of the university, though at a higher level, is not a fault of his but his principals who hired him and failed to put such a system in place. The unions were advised it is a transgression of one’s right to put in place the tools and process of evaluation at the conclusion of his/her contract and that this has to be done at the commencement of employment.

I am wary of any exercise that seeks to transgress one’s rights because it is my belief where there is support for an unjust act against another it opens the door for same to be committed against you and others. In this specific case, to entertain the transgressing of Griffith’s right can set the precedent to transgress the rights of other employees on the campus. The GTUC remains mindful of this.

4. “The unions have written to the TUC and outlined in great detail the multiple instances over many years when Mr. English openly and consistently adopted anti-worker positions.” With regards to these complaints levelled against English, which he has responded to, the public is deserving to have the benefit of hearing his side. Consequently, it is better for him to speak to the specific issues which would hopefully eliminate the accusation that I continue to “persist in his staunch defence.”

5. Previous views expressed by me as to the different roles and responsibility of the GTUC’s representative and the UG unions’ representative on the Council are seen as, “Taken together, these views expressed suggest that the General Secretary of the GTUC does not consider it necessary for the GTUC’s representative on the council to act in solidarity with or to protect the rights and interests of the UG faculty and staff.” Such charges, though noted, are without merit and I remain open to having them further discussed and clarified with the unions.

6. “That unless there is some change in the umbrella body’s positions in the next week, we shall be taking steps to disaffiliate from the organisation.” The GTUC reiterates its willingness to continue engagement with the unions and shall invite them for an engagement shortly.

I remain steadfast that these challenges are not unsolvable. Where there remain respect and adherence for universally acceptable principles, practices and laws, parties can build positive relations and peacefully co-exist.

Yours faithfully,

Lincoln Lewis

General Secretary

Guyana Trades Union Congress

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