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Teachers strike looms again: “They are ready to hit the streets” over imposed arbitration chairman, despite Education Ministry’s threatened legal action

Dr. Leyland Lucas

In the face of the Ministry of Education’s threat to take legal action if teachers go on strike again over the Minister of Labour’s unilateral appointment of a chairman of the arbitration panel, the Guyana Teachers Union (GTU) on Wednesday issued a seven-day strike ultimatum if the issue is not resolved.

“The union has indicated that we are giving a seven-days notice for us to regularise this situation, if not we’ll be forced to resume industrial action,” GTU General Secretary, Coretta Mc Donald told reporters. The GTU said it has already begun a fan-out exercise to update its members.

Mc Donald said her union refused to attend a meeting on Wednesday to submit its nominee for the three-member arbitration panel because Junior Labour Minister, Keith Scott violated the law by imposing Professor Leyland Lucas as the chairman of the panel instead of abiding by the law by only nominating a chairman in the absence of the Education Ministry and the GTU agreeing to one of their nominees.  The GTU, meanwhile, called on Professor Lucas to pull out of the process.

“As GTU seeks a way forward Dr. Lucas is being called upon recuse himself from a process that is not in accordance with industrial relations practices, laws and time-honoured principles,” the union said, adding that has nothing to do with his qualifications or perceived competencies but rather that he should not “be ensnared in any act that can bring disrepute to the profession”.

Invoking a 1983 Memorandum of Agreement –The Avoidance and Settlement of Disputes since July 7, 1983, the Ministry of Education said there should be no form of industrial action while a dispute is being addressed by the grievance procedure.  “Teachers are therefore kindly advised to have due regard to the above legal stipulation and should note that any action which violates or is adverse to the above shall be illegal for which the Ministry will ensure that the appropriate consequences ensue,” the ministry said. But Mc Donald vowed that the GTU’s members are “not going to be intimidated by threats”.

The GTU General Secretary warned that the next strike action could see affiliates from the two umbrella organisations- Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC), with 15 affiliates, and the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG) with four affiliates- calling out their workers in solidarity with the teachers. “The teachers, who were out there and those who were not out there, they are ready to hit the streets as we speak. As a matter of fact, let me say to you that other entities are only waiting on GTU to call that day and they’ll be ready to join us,” she said.

Teachers went on a countrywide strike from August 27 to September 6, 2018 to press demands for a 40 percent salary hike failing which the pay dispute was eventually referred to arbitration at the union’s insistence.

The GTU admitted that it made a mistake by failing to first hammering out an agreement on the chairmanship of the arbitration panel before deciding to call off the strike. “That was one of the mistakes that GTU made- not to at that point issue or come up with the name of the Chairperson and have that bounded at that point but I can say to you it’s not far gone because if we are interested in the business of education and if we are interested in the nation’s children, we would quickly resolve this issue,” she said.

With Professor Lucas being the Dean of the University of Guyana’s School of Entrepreneurship and Business Innovation (SEBI), Mc Donald reiterated that the Chairman should not be employed by government because his decisions might be influenced by his desire to retain his substantive job. “It’s simple! If you are employed by the State, then you are on the same path that teachers are on-struggling for survival- and you would not do anything to jeopardise your job so if the government nominates you or we get to the stage where you have to be appointed, then obviously you are going to dance to the tune that the piper is playing,” she said. The Ministry of Education has rejected former Foreign Affairs Minister, Rashleigh Jackson;  former Minister of Education, Jeffrey Thomas and Professor Dr. Aubrey Armstrong.

The GTUC on Wednesday came out in support of the GTU’s stance, insisting that the Ministry of Social Protection, which is responsible for labour, could not impose a chairman of the arbitration in a process that is supposed to be voluntary. That umbrella organisation said the September 6 Terms of Resumption agreement provides for the employer and the union must agree to the chairmanship.

“There is a stark difference between Compulsory Arbitration and Voluntary Arbitration. That the Minister set out to deceive, irrespective that his action will besmirch Dr. Lucas’ image, via association in an illegal act, is disconcerting. In Voluntary Arbitration a Chair can only be appointed after agreement between the parties. This the Minister must respect and stop interjecting himself where he has no authority. Given the tendency to recklessly act/speak and act contrite thereafter, GTUC thinks Minister Scott should publicly apologise to Dr. Lucas for the international embarrassment he has inflicted on him,” the GTUC said.

Accusing Scott of embarrassing Guyana and threatening the stability of the industrial relations climate, the GTUC suggested that Scott would have been fired or asked to resign for “high incompetence” in the workplace.

“The Minister’s recent act continues a pattern of speaking and acting without regard for or with guidance of the rules, laws and precedence and being mindful of his role in the industrial relations environment. Tuesday’s indecent further reinforces the GTU’s concern, and by extension Labour, about the Minister’s competencies in dealing with the issue of negotiating salary and working conditions for teachers. When he is not taking side with the employer, abrogating his duty to be an honest and credible broker, he is insulting teachers by calling them names, and now claiming authority to inflict an act under some phantom law,” the organisation said.

The union had been demanding a 40 percent increase in salaries for 2016 and five percent annually until 2020, but after the strike was called off last month publicly said it had been willing to accept 20 percent. The union has rejected the GY$700 million ball park offer for 2018 and GY$200 million to adjust some salary scales.