Our public-school teachers started returning to the classroom last Friday as a result of the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) and Ministry of Education (MoE) last Thursday signing the Terms of Resumption which brought the almost two-week strike to an end.
Let us with cautious optimism view this moment, because the struggle that placed the teachers in the streets is not over. The signing of the resumption brings closure to one step in addressing the issue that led to the strike. The genesis of industrial action has to do with the teachers’ pursuit of improved salary and working conditions. This we ought not lose sight of.
The GTU’s call for the Ministry to respect Collective Bargaining by using the arbitration machinery is a requirement within the Collective Labour Agreement (CLA) between the parties. Every effort must therefore be made to have this process respected.
The CLA, while entered into voluntarily by the parties, if not expressly stated within that it is not legal and binding, then it is legal and binding and enforceable in the courts. The point is made against the backdrop of an employer and government who appear to believe that after an agreement is entered into they can cherry-pick what will be honoured or discarded.
In this specific case they are urged to take note and be careful. There is already the view being expressed, from various quarters, that the MoE, with the support of other sections of government, is going to prevaricate and find reasons not to honour its commitment to arbitration. The reason advanced is the employer will seek to frustrate and delay the process through non-agreement in arriving at a chair for the arbitration panel, which requires agreement with the union.
I’ve been advised that at last Thursday’s meeting Labour Department operatives communicated that it is the department’s responsibility to appoint the chair. The Avoidance and Settlement of Dispute between the Union and Ministry expressly states that that responsibility is vested in the two parties. These are some of the nitty gritty teachers and society must pay keen attention to.
Throughout this issue the GTU has negotiated in good faith, keeping the teachers, students and society’s interest in focus. There must be reciprocity on the employer’s part. It is good faith on the teachers’ part to call off the strike, return to classroom the next day, and re-engage the employer next week to work out the Terms of Reference for the arbitration and appointing of members to the panel.
The GTU has had the experience in the past where the coalition government publicly stated there was no compulsion on its part to honour the CLA entered between the Union and previous administration. The coalition was either not properly advised or has ignored that the employees of the MoE or the business of the MoE does not belong to any specific administration. Governance is a continuous process and that CLA represents an agreement between the State and its employees. It has to be honoured until it expires, or the parties agree otherwise.
The view of some that the teachers must grovel for what is justly theirs will have to be continuously challenged, at all fronts. Teachers enjoy the protected constitutional right to Collective Bargaining, to associate with their Union and its legitimate actions, to strike, and to public assembly. Though persons reserve the right to agree or disagree with teachers’ action they have no right to violate their rights.
The issue of the MoE recruiting scab labour is historic in the teaching profession in this country. This must not be allowed to go unnoticed. There is need to evaluate the thinking of those who conceptualised and developed such a plan. The profession requires specialised training and oversight as educators and custodians of our children during the school hours, yet the employer was prepared to compromise the requirements, bringing to bear the lack of understanding of the role and responsibility of teachers.
The employer, and by extension government, needs to take note that whereas the GTU is not the largest union in the country, its tentacles reach in every community of this country, playing a major role in moulding impressionable minds. Teachers are known to invest their miserly earnings in subsidising what the state should be doing, and it doesn’t make sense to devalue their work and worth, evident in the treatment they have been receiving.
Happy teachers mould minds to be optimistic, to overcome challenges, and to take on the world. Perennially disgruntled teachers can only pass on negativity. After all they are human beings and where grievances exist, and opportunities not allowed to have them resolved in a civil manner, discontent and apathy step in. Some have moved with their feet and those who stayed have displayed open expectation that the MoE will work with their Union, in an environment of mutual respect, and address their concerns.
Efforts in some quarters to paint the recent industrial action as political and against the APNU+AFC administration, accusing the Union’s principal leaders of being in the PPP/C’s back pockets, and the warning issued by a senior government functionary that teachers must not “fall for the silly strife of the political opposition,” are misguided.
Persons have lost focus and here are the reasons for saying so:
One, teachers are not a homogeneous community, be it race, political association, etc.
Two, the GTU General Secretary’s activism as a trade unionist began during the PPP/C’s stewardship in office and it was the APNU+AFC Government, in 2017, that conferred on her the Arrow of Achievement for her role in trade unionism.
Three, the GTU has a history of standing up to governments, from the colonial era onward, inclusive of the PPP, and PNC who is in the coalition.
Four, if that senior government functionary, having himself came from the belly of the PPP, knows the possibility exists for the Opposition to make hay of the situation then he must be asked the question, “Why allow your government, in the first instance, to create the climate where teachers were left with no recourse to have their grievances address other than through the involvement in industrial action?”
This industrial dispute is not over. Come Tuesday, 11th September the parties have scheduled to meet to sort out the modalities and Terms of Reference for arbitration. Resolution requires and mandates the application of developed minds, prepared to accept and honour the spirit and intent of the GTU’s action, and the CLA to bring about a new agreement. This is what the GTU has been seeking for almost three years.
The struggle continues. Society’s support and vigilance are needed until a new agreement is inked and implementation begins. Complacency is not an option for those who respect rights, freedoms and the Rule of Law.
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