The Teacher’s Union Strike in Guyana – Commentary by Lincoln Lewis

Those condemning teachers’ action today would have supported it under a PPP/C Govt.

The teachers are today pursuing a cause they consider just and fair by asking the Government to sit down and negotiate with their union, the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU), for a new package that includes increased salary and better working conditions.  It is known employers generally will not acquiescence to workers’ demands unless workers are prepared to struggle for it. The case of the teachers is no different.

In 1999, the public-school teachers and public servants took to the streets in a long strike demanding increased salary and better working conditions from the PPP/C Government. That strike resulted in the establishment of two arbitration panels. One that addressed the concerns of the public servants was headed by Dr. Aubrey Armstrong and the other addressed the teachers’ concerns, and was headed by Father Malcolm Rodrigues, who at the time was a lecturer at the University of Guyana.    

This walk down memory lane is necessary, for its serves as a reminder that those who today condemn and ignore the teachers’ call for respect are the said persons who in 1999 were demanding that the GTU and Guyana Public Service Union not call off their industrial actions until the PPP/C Government resign.

The packages the unions acquired from that strike saw more than 50 percent increase in benefits. Even as today, society is being told the economy is doing better under the APNU+AFC administration, the teachers’ demand for 40 percent salary increase not only sees the casting of aspersions, but insulting of the Union’s leaders and the demand equated to Al Capone (the American gangster) and being grossly absurd. Some of these reckless statements are coming from the least expected of quarters and I’m convinced were the teachers engaged in similar action or proposal during a PPP/C administration, those persons would have sung a different tune.

What the teachers’ impasse is bringing out, and workers must take note, is the level of double standards existing in society, and that conversations of national import are driven by gut feeling, not reason and application of universally acceptable principles. Those who were in government today, when in Opposition repeatedly said that the teachers deserve better pay. There are few, if any, that can honestly contradict the view that for many of those teachers who voted for this administration, the principal driving factor was the campaign commitment to make them the highest paid public employees.

In Opposition, those parties talked about respecting Collective Bargaining and demanded of the PPP/C Government that same be done. Supporters also joined the call. For all the years, wages and salaries were imposed on public sector employees they rightly condemned the PPP/C and called on the workers to engage in industrial action. The retrieval of this evidence is a mouse click away.

Today the tables have turned, and what we’re seeing is a quality of citizens that society is churning out as leaders/opinion shapers, formal and informal, that don’t portend well for its future. We must ask ourselves what type of society is being bequeathed to the young when basic decency and honesty no longer prevail, when good and bad are only assigned when the party/group supported is in government or opposition. None of us should feel proud of this period of our history.

The teachers are not asking for anything that was not asked for before or this country has never before seen honoured. But to hear some responses to secure their right to Collective Bargaining, by those they taught, gives rise to concern if something went amiss in our education system. This issue is not about whether the government can pay 40 percent or not; it is about sitting at the table with teachers and negotiating.

Negotiation is a process of giving and taking, at the end of which an agreement is arrived at. A basic principle in negotiation is to seek to start from a position of strength. The teachers have put out theirs in the form of a proposal. What is required of the employer, who they seek to negotiate with, is to come to the table with a counter-proposal.

Negotiation is engagement between equals. In Collective Bargaining (expressly enshrined in Article 147, Guyana Constitution) the employer and the employees’ representative (trade union) are equals. The spirit and intent behind this is to start from a position of mutual respect which would require staying at the table until there is resolution. When these tenets are violated, trade union and workers resort to industrial actions.

Another disturbing observation is that because the party/group supported is in government, persons are ignoring that the Union repeatedly said it is open to negotiate with the employer and can be called upon at any time to work out modalities to bring the strike to an end. The attacks ignore there exists a Report by a Task Force appointed by President David Granger and all the Union is asking for is that the employer meet with its leadership to commence negotiation around this Report.

Decency and commonsense may have fled these shores. Why can’t a spade be called a spade and efforts made in working towards amicable relationship between employer/government and the people/workers? There is no doubt if the situation changes tomorrow and the PPP/C happens to form the government, should teachers proceed on industrial action, those who now condemn and ignore them will be verbalising their cause and goading them on.

Who in the Coalition government can be the voice of reason and say to their fellow colleagues the government’s approach is not right. For whereas, it may garner political support amongst the staunch loyalists, shouting down the voices of reason, it presents the Coalition as uncaring and ruthless.

How can social cohesion ever be achieved when the fundamental rights and freedoms of all cannot be respected? On one hand we bear witness to talks about respecting the Constitution and Laws of Guyana that held and want to hold the PPP/C accountable for their stewardship of this country and treatment of citizens. On the other hand, we bear witness that some will reject the same principle being applied when their party/group is in office.

When history is written by historians of integrity, it will present a picture of a group when in opposition condemned the action of the government and when entrusted with the people’s power to manage their affairs and do right by them, the result has proven that changing of the guard does not necessarily translate to changing of behaviour.

Throughout the three years of calling for Collective Bargaining to be respected, the teachers have conducted themselves with nothing but dignity and class, serving as example to all. Yet their steely determination, rather than attract praise and emulation, sees ridicule and attacks.

I’m on record calling for constitutional education. This experience must serve as a lesson to the teachers that if government doesn’t make Civics part of the school curriculum, they must find ways and means to introduce and impart it to the minds they are now moulding. This nation has lost a few generations due to the absence of a moral compass and it is time to arrest it, or this society will regress not progress.

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  • Xavier TD  On September 7, 2018 at 12:58 pm

    Talks about turning GT’s coastline into the next Dubai or Manhattan, but teachers are paid a measly US$300 a month, when projections of oil revenues by 2021 will increase Gross Income by 30 to 50% compared to 2018.
    Why construct mega high rises to compete with Manhattan when locals have low salaries compared to Trinidad?

    • Anthony  On September 9, 2018 at 1:57 pm

      @ Xavier,
      I’ve noticed many work-in-progress of six to ten storey high rises down Camp Street, Sheriff Street and Regent Street!

      There aren’t even enough washrooms for teachers and students! I suspect that the schools that don’t have sufficient washrooms are QC, Bishops and Stanislaus.

      So the PTB prefers to construct mega high rises and boast of becoming the next Arabian utopia (not true as many Gulf States are repressive and ruled by aristocrats).

      “Stokely Lane, another teacher who has given the country more than two decades of service, said he is very disappointed at the way the situation is playing out and that they are not only fighting for an increase in wages but other benefits and better working conditions for the teachers throughout the country.

      “In some schools, you find that you don’t have enough washrooms for the students and teachers, so we are struggling, trying to make ends meet in the system and then persons in the higher “authority” are trying to disrespect us. I am going to say I don’t deal with politics, I deal with reality. The issue, this thing is not a political thing, but an issue that teachers have been going through for the past 20 years,” Lane said, while pointing out that if the teachers are comfortable, then the students will be better served in classrooms.

      He also emphasised that at the end of the day the teachers also need to be paid livable wages since they have bills, loans and other expenses to pay like other working-class citizens of the country. He told the other protestors that they need to work together and would “hold it up” until they get what they are demanding.”

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