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Teachers flexing muscles


The St Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers’ Union (SVGTU) seems to be stepping up a campaign against the ULP government just as the ruling party itself is embarking on its electoral campaign for re-election. Two weeks ago, the Union issued a strongly-worded statement, demanding action on two long-standing unresolved issues with the Government. Now, it has gone further in threatening industrial action on another sore matter.{{more}}

This time it is the demand by the SVGTU for a one-month salary payment, in lieu of a salary increase which has not been forthcoming during the 2010/15 term of office of the Ralph Gonsalves administration. That proposal was submitted to the Government since last year, but thus far Government has not acceded to the request.

Given the union’s long-standing grievances over the failure to reinstate three teachers who had, under the terms of the collective agreement between the SVGTU and Government, resigned to contest the 2010 general elections, but have not been reinstated as spelt out in the agreement, the union is not mincing words. Not only has it made it clear that Government must meet its demands, but president Oswald Robinson has even spoken of possible industrial action in furtherance of the teachers’ claims.

The timing of the industrial threats is significant. The country is in an election mode and typically, this is the time when governments are pressured, bearing in mind the fear of offending such civic bodies, lest votes be lost in the process. It is also to be noted that the outstanding issues which continue to peeve the SVGTU, the reinstatement of four teachers, are themselves rooted in politics. The three teachers who resigned in 2010 contested elections on behalf of the Opposition NDP, while the fourth, once a rabid supporter of the ULP, turned out to be one of its strongest critics. All four have now become victims of the political system and prevailing culture.

It is unfortunate that the wheels of justice are grinding so slowly with the matters in contention still being bogged down in the courts and Public Service appeal system. But, in view of the relationship between the SVGTU and Government, those matters should not have reached this state in the first place.

The collective agreement mentioned is an historic one, being

the first in the Union’s long history. It ought to have paved the

way for exemplary industrial relations between employer and employees. What was seen as a victory for the right of public employees to participate openly in politics, without fear of recrimination, has now turned out to be a big bone of contention. Incidentally, it begs the question, what would happen, if, given the reinstatement of the “election three”, one or more would then, on the eve of election, resign again to contest? Can this happen every five years?

The dispute between the SVGTU and the Government runs the risk of not only souring the industrial relations climate, but of being contaminated by the political environment itself. In the run-up to elections, it is quite probable that some on the Government side would view the union’s threats as being “political” and urge a hardening of the Government’s position. Vice versa, one can well imagine some teachers ignoring objective circumstances and coming to political conclusions as to where their votes should go.

Neither position is in the best interests of the country, the union and teachers themselves. The situation calls for maturity and common sense. Much water has flowed beneath the proverbial bridge, but it is never too late to rectify perceived mistakes and to rebuild trust and confidence.