Feb 04, 2015 News
Staffers of the University of Guyana (UG) were not prepared to retreat or surrender, not even to inclement weather yesterday, as part of efforts to intensify their industrial action.
The protests at UG commenced last week and was as a result of failed talks between the University’s unions – University of Guyana Senior Staff Association (UGSSA) and the University of Guyana Workers’ Union (UGWU) – and its negotiation team, as it relates to a 60 per cent hike in salaries, other benefits and better working conditions.
The industrial action yesterday saw workers forming a human barricade at the entrance of the tertiary institution as part of a mission to “shut down” its operations. This was in spite of a circular issued by the University’s Personnel Officer that monies will be deducted each day from staffers’ salaries as a penalty.
But according to former UGSSA President and senior lecturer at the University, Dr Pat Francis, “we are prepared to continue, regardless, until our demands are met.” She insisted that the ongoing industrial action was not provoked by the unions or the workers. In fact, she asserted that “we were at the negotiating table with the Vice Chancellor (Professor Jacob Opadeyi) and the other members of his team, and he was the one who provoked the action by removing himself from the negotiating table by saying he is not talking to us anymore.”
It is Dr Francis’ belief that the Vice Chancellor sought to deliberately provoke a crisis at the University as she speculated that “there was no need for this. We have got to get what we are asking for, or at least we have got to get some movement in that general direction. We must, it is best if we die altogether rather than little by little, because that is what we have been doing – dying little by little, and we can’t do it anymore.”
Dr Francis’ raised voice could not conceal her growing irritation at the prevailing situation at the University. She moreover insisted that the workers will not return to work merely with a promise of betterment.
“No way, no how…We have had too many empty promises since 2011; they can’t say that we are unreasonable, because this is 2015. It is time for a definite resolution and whatever it is going to take we will do,” said Dr Francis.
She went on to lament the fact that the Vice Chancellor and some of his administrative staffers have even intimated that “we don’t have the nerve; we don’t have the guts; we will soon be starving. But I want them to know we are ready to do what we have to do.”
“Right now the University is completely shut down, if there is anybody in there, they are very few,” said an irate Dr Francis, who informed that at a meeting on Monday “the majority of the staffers said they are ready for the long haul.”
“Even if we have to eat rice flour and water or whatever, we are ready for that,” insisted Dr Francis yesterday, as she commented on Professor Opadeyi’s absence at a planned meeting on Monday in the George Walcott Lecture Theatre.
Reports are that Professor Opadeyi had checked into the Caribbean Heart Institute reportedly with some heart-related concerns on Sunday. It was reported that he was kept overnight for observation and was discharged on Monday.
But according to Dr Francis, “while I am not one to scuff at sickness, I do believe that it was all drama. I think it was a dramatic piece for our entertainment; I am not at all convinced that the Vice Chancellor was sick.”
Her reaction was premised on the fact that the Vice Chancellor, though a few metres away, joined the protest activity yesterday, perhaps to subtly counter the ongoing protest action. He displayed placards that call on the UG staffers to return to work for the sake of the students and yet another that assured that salaries will be increased, “just allow me to reduce expenses. You deserve more.”
The Vice Chancellor is however only prepared to give “five per cent or just a little bit more,” said Dr Francis, as she pointed out that the Vice Chancellor should have long been putting measures in place to earn money for the University. Government’s intervention was also highlighted as another possible solution to the crisis.
And even as the staffers continue to fight for their demands to be met, Dr Francis said that the staffers will not leave the students out in the cold. She disclosed that even if classes are to be held during the nights or at weekends in order to bring lecture sessions back into sync, that will be done to ensure that students can graduate in a timely manner.
“This has happened before, when they were removing asbestos from our buildings and we were out for months, and we are prepared to do it again. If it wasn’t for this action we could have taught our students off-campus, we didn’t have to come here, but we have to stand up for something,” Dr Francis insisted.
UGWU President, Bruce Haynes, in an invited comment, said that the continuance of the intensified industrial action is in fact linked to the students of the institution.
“If the students recognise that what they are getting is not based on what they think they are paying for, then they need to be out here in larger numbers…”Haynes stressed, as he pointed out that it must be recognised that “every single stakeholder is important – the administration, staff and students.”
As such, he asserted that those supporting in the background must not interfere, but rather be supportive. He was at the time alluding to the University’s Council, pointing out that “they must not only bring a level of analysis to the process but they must be facilitators…The agenda of those people who sit on the University Council should not be a personal one, nor a political one, not one based on Government position, but it must be one based on ‘what can I do as a representative here to advance the progress of this University in making it the premier institution that it is supposed to be’.”
Haynes continued by sharing his conviction that while the University should be embracing the title of a flagship institution, the reality is that it is currently “a sinking ship and we want to change all of that.”
But addressing this, he noted, would require the support of individuals from the highest level to “see us differently, see this edifice differently, it is a national institution; it is a monument and I hope that we are not being treated as we treat all other monuments that have been there that are identified with tourists who come into this country.”
And as they firmly held their positions, even sheltering with umbrellas when the rain came down, it was clear that the striking staffers were not alone.
The presence of some students including the President of the University of Guyana Students’ Society (UGSS), Joshua Griffith, was very evident. Griffith, who was at one time perched on one of the supporting columns of the gates, didn’t even bother to shelter from the rain.
He told this publication that while there have been reports that might suggest that students were standing in solidarity with the workers and their unions, the fact of the matter is that both sides are demanding better conditions at UG simultaneously.
“While we are both here representing our own interests, we are also representing a common interest…We (the UGSS/students) said that we would be shutting down the University today and the (workers’) unions said that they will join with us, and here we are today,” Griffith explained.
He noted that UGSS/students are prepared to sustain the struggle for betterment which will translate to the University’s administration addressing a number of conditions that were presented to Deputy Vice Chancellor, Dr Elizabeth Ramlall, at a meeting on Monday that was intended to plot the way forward.
Students’ concerns range from better facilities to the timely submission of their grades. And Griffith, in assessing the situation at UG, asserted that “to put it bluntly this University is not ready to have classes. I know some students are more concerned about getting in and getting out, so we have gotten a little bit of opposition…”
But according to Griffith, “at the end of the day students’ welfare must be paramount and we believe that now is the time to implement sustainable changes to restore the University”. As such, he noted that students, like staffers, will be unrelenting in their calls for an improved UG.
Yesterday’s protest activity attracted the attention of several police ranks, with at least one senior officer, insisting that the university entrance should not be blocked. However, staffers told the ranks that their action was a peaceful protest. Although some ranks left soon after, two were left behind to ensure that peace would be maintained.
Was Jagdeo honest when he made those promises?
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