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Confusion reigns amid talk of betrayal

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The events of last week have left me truly confused. Of course, I am referring to the Teachers’ Strike and developments during and after, including statements made by different players at different times. I had to look back at the newspapers of November 2, 2007, to try to sort out this confusion. The News’ headline stated, “Teachers, Public Servants, Satisfied”. The Searchlight was even more enthusiastic as it declared “PM Shares fruits of Country’s economic growth – Oh, Happy Day!{{more}} (A Kirby Jackson article). An article in the News by the former president of the St.Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers’ Union stated, “Reclassification Realised-time to Celebrate and Reflect”. I quote extensively from the two newspapers listed above in my bid to try to find out what went wrong and if there was in fact an element of betrayal, and if there was, who really betrayed whom.

The News: “The leadership of two of this country’s trade unions that represent public servants say they are satisfied with a negotiated settlement which will give teachers and other public servants a five percent increase on their pay packets, the implementation of the Reclassification programme, along with bonuses and back pay for Christmas.” It goes on to state that the Prime Minister, while delivering an address at Victoria Park, announced monetary incentives for public servants; “What he announced, that was what we agreed to,” stated President of the Public Service Union, PSU, Aubrey Burgin.”…Burgin said officials from the PSU and the St.Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers’ Union, SVGTU, met with the PM and other officials from the Ministry of Finance last Wednesday to finalise salary negotiations for workers. Burgin admitted the final agreement was not the unions’ original position, but made it clear, “It was not something that was given to us.” The News continued by quoting the PM, “These increases, effectively in excess of 16 percent over two years are of historic proportions. I urge all public employees to lift their game, so to speak and be even more productive at work.” Acting President of the SVGTU, Joy Mathews and the membership of her Union have been informed of the negotiations, through meetings with the various branches. Mathews said the percent negotiated was not what was asked for but said her membership is satisfied with the outcome of the salary negotiations.”

In his article in the Searchlight Kirby Jackson wrote, “ ‘Public Servants have been assured by this country’s PM that whether or not their jobs are ‘red circled’ due to reclassification, they are going to receive a minimum 10 percent salary increase.’ This, as questions were raised by Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace earlier this week on a radio programme suggesting that some public servants may miss out on the second five percent increase due to reclassification. But speaking to Searchlight just before heading to Puerto Rico earlier this week, Dr. Gonsalves called the suggestion nonsense, and assured public servants that the 10 percent increase is the minimum any of them will get. Dr. Gonsalves noted that the second five percent increase will be five percent of the already increased salary, due to the retroactive five percent for 2007 and whatever increase brought about by reclassification.”

Meanwhile in the same November 2 issue of the News, Otto Sam wrote, “Teachers would be extremely elated with the PM’s announcement that reclassification will be implemented, as agreed with the Teachers Union….Although the SVGTU did not get the ideal pick, the union would be happy that in excess of 80 percent of its membership will benefit directly from the reclassification exercise.”

I must first admit to not having followed closely the developments last week, but, nevertheless, the question which I keep asking is what went wrong between the elation and sweet praises of October 27 and the strike of January 9 & 10? Apparently, when the heads of the Unions spoke about satisfaction with the settlement, the focus was on the salary increases, but the Prime Minister, in his address, presented a package that included the reclassification settlement. Was it that the reclassification package was not what was agreed to? What was the agreement about the implementation of the Powell Report? Was there such an agreement? Were the unions privy to information about the salary bands? If they were not, why give what appeared to have been a blanket acceptance of the package announced by the Prime Minister?

Clearly, both sides, that is government and the unions, agree that there are a number of anomalies. Why is it that these are only now being featured? At what point did both sides recognise these anomalies? So representatives of the Teachers’ Union met with a government delegation, on Monday, January 7, I believe, and an agreement was made to take the recommendations to Cabinet on Wednesday, January 9. Why then was a strike called on Wednesday? P. John gives an answer. He reminded us that there are what are called ‘Wild Cat’ Strikes and that the objective was to pressure the government. But if as was stated in a Press Release later, the Union leadership had absolute confidence in the integrity of the Prime Minister, why was it then necessary to undertake industrial action when the matter was going to be discussed at Cabinet? The News release does indicate that the issue of betrayal was only in relation to the implementation of the Powell Report. This is itself absurd. You either have full confidence or you don’t have full confidence. One must, therefore, understand the Prime Minister’s focus on the matter of betrayal, particularly when he has been doing so much to court the loyalties of teachers.

But there is more to this. The Prime Minister, as usual, gets carried away with his own rhetoric and often speaks out of turn. It is clear that when teachers and public servants listened to the Prime Minister’s speech at Victoria Park, many of them went away with certain expectations that bore no relationship to the realities. Union leaders have always to be careful not to be carried away with the rhetoric of any employer be it government or private. They have to deal with documentation that clearly sets out what they have agreed to. This whole issue was seriously bundled. It is obvious that more time was needed to work things through and for this, the unions more than the government have to take some blame.

The other matter about which more needs to be said was what the Union referred to as the “silent” recording of their internal meeting. This is a dangerous precedent and begs the question as to what other meetings and proceedings are recorded. I agree with the Union that this is not in the best interest of democracy. This is a serious matter for it infringes on freedom of speech and the privacy of meetings of any organisation, but then the Union has full confidence in the integrity of the PM, so why complain?

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