The Guyana Teachers’ Union believes that it has scored a major victory by having the government agree to go to arbitration over the dispute in teachers’ wages negotiations. But is this a victory for the union or is it an astute move by the government to bring an end to a strike which was disrupting the educational system?
It is highly unusual for a government to agree to arbitration in a strike that is less than two weeks old. There may not be a precedent to this decision.
So while the actions of the union may raise some eyebrows, the greater suspicion – and this is something which the union should think carefully about – is why would the government within two weeks of a strike agree to arbitration.
The Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) may have made a gargantuan mistake by agreeing to call off its strike and to agree to Terms of Resumption, without any signed agreement on the Terms of Arbitration.
The GTU is placing a lot of trust in the government. But given the way the government has treated with the union over the past weeks, it is a high risk gamble by the union to not have initialed Terms of Arbitration before calling off the strike. By agreeing on Terms of Resumption, the GTU has effectively called off the strike.
The Terms of Resumption are generous. Teachers will be paid for the time they were off the job, a morally indefensible position. If you are on strike, then you should not be asking for payment for services which you never rendered.
The government has agreed, reportedly, that there will be no victimization. It is not clear how the union is going to decide what constitutes victimization. If the relevant authority decides to transfer a teacher, this can always be construed as victimization when in fact the decision may not be ill-willed.
What would it have taken for the union to prepare Terms of Arbitration and have that signed at the same time as it agreed to Terms of Resumption?
The union should have gone to the discussions with the Chief Labour Officer not with green jerseys – that in itself represented poor optics that could divide the union further – but with a draft Terms of Arbitration.
The union is taking a big gamble, because if problems arise during the negotiations about arbitration, the union will find itself embarrassed. It is not easy, as other trade unions have found out, to call off a strike and then depend on the workers to come back out.
Without any signed Terms of Arbitration, the government can exploit this weakness to its advantage. What happens if there is no agreement on the Terms of Arbitration? What is the union going to do then? Instead of seeing green, the union might end up seeing red. But that is a risk that the union took and which it has to live with.
Does it trust the government to not prevaricate with the process? What if there is no agreement on the type of arbitration to be utilized? It is one thing to agree to go to arbitration, but there also needs to be agreement on how the arbitral tribunal will be constituted and what it will be asked to consider.
Is the union pressing for one-man arbitration? Or will the union ask for it and the government to each name a representative and for a third person to be selected who is fit and proper and who is mutually agreeable to both sides?
Will the arbitrator/s be asked to consider benefits as well as a multi-year wages agreement? Or will it be restricted to wage increases for a particular year?
The union should take no chances. The reach of the government is long. The union has to select arbitrators who cannot be bought. It should insist that the government not have a right to refuse the union’s nominees. The union should look for an independent and strong-willed person, because the PNCR is no spring chicken when it comes to exerting pressure and influence behind the scenes.
The union had better hope that it does not live to rue its decision to call off the strike without agreed Terms of Arbitration. That is a decision that can backfire on the union.
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