The two major trade union umbrella bodies in the country are likely to take to the streets in solidarity with the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU), which has threatened to strike within seven days if there is no resolution to the issue regarding the appointment of a chairperson of the arbitration panel to settle the long-running wage dispute.
GTU General Secretary Coretta McDonald Wednesday hinted that all other trade unions are prepared to join the strike action, in a move that could disrupt the entire public service.
McDonald, who is the president of the Guyana Trade Unions Congress, the largest trade union umbrella body in the country, told media operatives: “Don’t forget, trade unions, they rally around each other. We have the [GTUC] with about 15 unions affiliated to it and we have FITUG with another four unions. And if your recognise what has been happening from 2015 to now, we are having one May Day rally.”
She added: “All of us are feeling the squeeze and if we can help each other to make each other lives better, then we will so do.”
Carvil Duncan, the President of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG), another major umbrella body representing unions like GAWU, NAACIE and CCCWU, confirmed to the News Room that its members are prepared to strike.
“If the teachers choose to go on strike again…I am with them,” Duncan stated, noting that its members are prepared to hit the streets.
The Ministry of Education (MoE) has since threatened legal consequences if the GTU proceeds on strike again, in accordance with in accordance with a Memorandum of Agreement signed in July 1983 regarding the settling and avoidance of disputes.
But McDonald says teachers are not discouraged by threats; she expects major support from teachers if the GTU strikes again.
“The Ministry will always issue statements of threats to teachers…our members are not going to be intimidated by threats,” McDonald stated.
The threat to strike again comes after the GTU and the Labour Department reached an impasse on the appointment of the chairman of an arbitration panel. The Labour Department contends that it has appointed Dr Leyland Lucas, a professor at the University of Guyana, to chair the panel.
But the GTU is arguing that the Labour Ministry does not have the power to appoint, only to nominate a chairman that is mutually accepted by both parties.
Several trade unionists have explained that there are two types of arbitration: voluntary arbitration and compulsory arbitration. According to McDonald, the type of arbitration in relation to the teachers’ wage dispute is voluntary, since both parties agreed to take this route of resolution following the initial fallout on increased salaries.
She explained that with voluntary arbitration, both sides have to agree on the chairperson of the arbitration panel.
McDonald further contended that Dr Lucas cannot be considered “independent” to chair the panel, since he is employed by the Government.
“If you are employed by the State … you will 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 explained.
McDonald contended that all the Union is asking for is an independent chairperson. The GTU has proposed individuals like Rashleigh Jackson, Jeffery Thomas and Aubrey Armstrong to be the chairperson. McDonald questioned what has the government to fear in appointing an independent person.
The GTUC, in a statement to the media Wednesday, also stated that Junior Minister Keith Scott – who has responsibility for labour relations – has no authority to appoint a chairperson in voluntary arbitration.
“What Minister Scott is seeking to do is disregard the time-honoured good faith practice, agreed, written and signed to by the GTU and MoE on 6th September 2018.”
GTUC says the extant agreement expressly states, “A chairperson [be] agreed to by the employer and the GTU.”
Further, the 1990 GTU and MoE Memorandum of Understanding stipulated that where there isn’t agreement between the parties on an arbitration chair, the Ministry of Labour will be asked to “nominate” one.
“A nomination is not tantamount to an appointment. The difference the Minister must recognise and respect,” GTUC contended.
But Minister Scott and Chief Labour Officer Charles Ogle have maintained that the Labour Department is empowered to “appoint.”
This position was relayed by the Minister and labour officials to the GTU when the parties met to discuss the appointment of arbitrators on Tuesday. After being introduced to Dr Lucas as the lead arbitrator, the Union objected and subsequently requested some time to do a “background check” on the individual. They were slated to meet again today but the GTU did not show up.
It instead wrote the Labour Department outlining its position regarding Dr Lucas and its concerns with the process. According to the GTU, it will not be attending the meeting because of growing concerns that Minister Scott “either wants to take teachers for a ride or has no interest in ensuring the establishment of an arbitration panel.”
The Chief Labour Officer and Chief Education Officer (CEO) Mr Marcel Hutson both offered ‘no comment’ to the media on their next step.
For the GTU, their next step would be to strike again if there is no resolution to the dispute on the appointment of a chairperson of the arbitration panel.