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The biggest losers

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Were there any winners or losers in this week’s attempt by the leadership of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers Union (SVGTU) and the Public Service Union (PSU) to call a strike in support of their demands for a one-off, tax-free payment of one month’s salary?

The strike was called for Tuesday of this week, but by all objective measures, failed to have significant impact.{{more}} Statistics obtained by SEARCHLIGHT show an 80% turn-out by teachers, and these figures were broadly corroborated by reports from SEARCHLIGHT’s reporters who visited 21 schools on the mainland. The public service itself was largely unaffected, with very few absentees.

In fact is, the industrial action took place in an atmosphere which was more politically charged than reflective of an industrial dispute. Political activists on both sides of the political divide were prominent, especially in the media, in arguing the case for their side. The core of the industrial dispute itself seemed to have taken second fiddle to whether the Government was to be embarrassed or defeated on the issue. What clearer proof of this does one need than the fact that the SVGTU failed to get consensus that the strike was the way to go, even among its own executive?

This is sad, for, as the Prime Minister himself has admitted, the teachers and public servants have a case in their claim for increased remuneration to cope with the continuing economic hardships facing them and their families. Mind you, those hardships are felt by the rest of us as well – farmers, small business people, the unemployed, the retired and aged, even the business community. We are all in it together.

Where the point of departure occurred is on the affordability of the claims and whether meeting them in the current economic climate would do more harm than good to the national cause.

For the unions involved, not only must they make a sober appraisal of the post-strike situation, but must do so in the context where the action taken has failed to bring desired results. There has been a clear rupture in the relationship between the union leadership and their employer. Pains must be taken to restore it.

The labour movement has also been weakened. Both the unions involved belong to the National Labour Congress, but that umbrella body appeared not to be a factor in the dispute. On the contrary, there were public attacks on the more experienced leadership in the trade union movement. This, in our view, could hardly have served any useful purpose. It is another broken shaft which must be repaired.

At the end of it all, it would appear that the only winners were the political parties. The Opposition NDP may benefit from the feelings of aggrieved teachers and public servants, who, even if they did not withdraw their services, consider their cause to be just and may be displeased with the handling of the situation by the Government. On the other hand, the governing ULP must feel vindicated in the stand it took, supposedly in defence of the ‘national purse’, and will use the failure of the strike as a rejection of Opposition-supported efforts to place it under greater political pressure in the run-up to the elections.

What is most unfortunate is that neither the workers nor the unions have benefitted by the industrial action. They are the biggest losers. We urge them to proactively seek to engage Government again in negotiations. Stubbornness will do no good. On the part of the Government, it is crucial that it avoids any sense of arrogance or triumphalism. It has admitted that there is need for economic relief. Sit down with the unions and seek to work out a realistic solution.

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