(Excerpts of Dr. Friday’s Press Statement)
The New Democratic Party (NDP), on Thursday 17th January 2019, held a meeting with the Executive of the Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers Union (SVGTU). The meeting took place here at my Office at Democrat House. I believe it is the first time we have had such a meeting with the Union during my time in politics.
Most of the members of the Union executive were present, including the President and the 2nd Vice President. I invited the Union leaders to meet with me and other members of the party and Opposition so that we might hear directly from them about the matters of concern to the workers they represent.
There had been (and remain) in the public discourse a lot of discussion about interaction between the Union and the Government, particularly concerning a meeting that had been scheduled between the Teachers’ Union, other unions and the Prime Minister which the Union leaders did not attend because they refused to surrender their cell phones to the Prime Minister’s security.
I am very grateful to the Teachers’ Union for accepting my invitation and for its willingness to discuss with us issues of concern to teachers. It is very important that we the Opposition remains engaged and informed in important matters affecting teachers and public servants.
I believe it is my duty to seek to open paths of communication with the representatives of important civil society organizations such as trade unions and to be of assistance to them where I can. Indeed, I have done so repeatedly with the Christian Council.
We must remember that the Opposition is a legitimate part of our system of government. It not an alien force to be viewed with suspicion or fear. It is an essential part of our system of government and acts with the might of constitutional authority behind it. As Opposition Leader, I therefore take my role and that of my colleagues in this regard very seriously.
At the meeting with the union, my colleagues and I discussed several matters including salaries, promotions and working conditions of teachers. The Union also advised of proposals it has presented to the Government on behalf of its members.
In particular, we learned that the Teachers’ Union and the Public Service Union, in a joint proposal, wrote to the government twice in 2017 and again in 2018 seeking to engage in collective bargaining with the government and that the government failed to respond to their letters. In other words, the unions have called on the government to engage in negotiations to lead to a new collective agreement, but the government has refused to respond.
It is extraordinary that a government that promotes itself as a friend of labour and a progressive employer would not even acknowledge or reply to the requests of the legitimate representatives of the employees of the government! This must be very disheartening for the unions. Such an approach by the government is disrespectful of the leaders of the unions and has the effect of undermining the legitimacy and effectiveness of trade unions in representing workers in this country.
I am very concerned about the failure of the ULP government to engage in collective bargaining with the unions. The last collective agreement with teachers was negotiated in 2005. This is the agreement that allows teachers to contest elections for parliament and, if unsuccessful, to return to their jobs.
The government, as you know, failed to honour that aspect of the agreement in the cases of three teachers, namely, Addison “Bash” Thomas, Kenroy Johnson and Elvis Daniel, who contested general elections on behalf of the NDP and were not allowed to return to the teaching service. That matter is in the Court of Appeal and a decision is expected any day now. We expect that the teachers will prevail in that case, but as is necessary, acknowledge it is entirely a matter for the Court to decide.
Do you know that the last negotiated salary increase for teachers took place in 1999 under the NDP government? All salary increases under the ULP government have been legislated.
In other words, the government says to workers and their representatives that they know best what is good for the workers and have the power to enforce it. So, instead of coming to table in a spirit of mutual respect, and negotiating an acceptable outcome, the ULP government used its power in every instance to impose an outcome.
It is a shame that a government that calls itself a labour government and brags about its labour friendliness would intentionally obstruct and disregard the collective bargaining process.
And we see it is doing so again, right now! Despite calls by the unions for negotiations on all matters, including salaries, the government has refused to come to the bargaining table.
Instead the unions were invited to meet the Prime Minister and other members of government to be informed about what the government had decided to offer them in the upcoming budget. And what is that offer? A mere 1% for the second half of 2018, 1.5% for 2019 and 2% for 2020.
This purported imposition by the government of a so-called salary increase is an affront to the Union and to the bargaining process. We support the unions in their calls for a return to the collective bargaining process and generally in their efforts to represent their members. The government should respect the bargaining process and engage in good-faith negotiations with them.