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As we are about to embark on another round of constitutional reforms, the behaviour of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) towards the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) is a ‘God Send’. One could have spoken ad infinitum about this government being authoritatively classified as an autocracy without ordinary people having had the opportunity to understand the actual implications of this condition for their daily lives. In its amoral and foolhardy determination to dominate Guyana’s political space, the PPP has brought the autocratic reality into almost every home in Guyana.
After all manner of union- and organisational-busting activities – going directly to the teachers, local authorities, etc.- have failed, President Irfaan now asks the teachers to be patient and in so doing clearly demonstrates that he has still not or does not want to understand the problem.
Trade unionism led to significant improvements in the living conditions of working people until about the late 1960s, when for all kinds of reasons having to do with changes in the nature of work, etc., union numbers began to decline. Worldwide today, the level of inequality has reached such alarming proportions that once again trade unionism is on the rise to help determine how work relations are managed and profits are equitably divided. The constitutions and laws of most liberal democracies countries and in a democratically aspiring Guyana allow for the establishment of free independent trade unions in the public and private sectors.
Constitutional, legal, and other formal and nonformal rules exist to see that teachers and workers in general can get a fair deal. The rules of engagement allow for mutual negotiations, agreed upon methods of conciliation and rules for independent arbitration about almost any issue upon which the employer and the union cannot reach agreement. Dr. President, at the end of the day, it is not for teachers and their union to have patience with you if they feel cheated or for the unions to determine what the teachers are to be paid: the Constitution and rules establish an independent arbitration process (which fortunately/unfortunately in the Guyana teachers’ case gives the government of the day an advantage) to make such a determination.
Only an autocratic regime such as the one at present headed by Dr. Ali would think it legitimate to frustrate and then totally ditch these constitutional and legal requirements and when you find yourself on the ropes to resort to notions of patience. The immediate quantity of teachers’ salaries is of importance, but what must rank above it is the national good, which is intricately tied with their and their families’ long-term standard of working and living. Democratic government, to which you claim to aspire, has its role to play, but as indicated above, independent unions also have their place as the industrial guardians of the economic conditions of present and future working generations.
But this is precisely what the machinations of the leadership of the PPP over the years have been trying to destroy: to place the unions and the lives of teachers, other workers and their families in the hands of the oligarchy at Freedom House. Since 2020, notwithstanding the various delaying tactics of the government, the unions have been trying to reach some kind of rapprochement with the regime, only to have the chief labour officer, who is required to be independent in disputes between employer and employee and who should have been facilitating this process, tell them that ‘the grievance procedure’ that should not have taken more than a few months ‘has not been exhausted’! It is as if he has never heard that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’.
However, as Guyana goes to constitutional reform, it must not be blind-sided by this temporary PPP/GTU standoff and forget the historical context that constitutional reform is required to fix. Last week, Anand Goolsarran captioned his Accountability Watch ‘Despite strong constitutional, legislative and regulatory systems to fight corruption, meaningful progress continues to elude us’ (SN: 05/02/2024). What the present teachers dispute also teaches is that democratic, open, and transparent government requires more than rules: it requires a substantial body of citizens willing to stand up in the protection of the rules.
Given his location, the general secretary of the PPP, Vice-President Bharrat Jagdeo, responding to a question about the large number of teachers in PPP strongholds who have joined the strike, in a Donald Trumpian ‘Times Square’ moment (‘I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?’) contextualized Guyana’s predicament better than I ever could have. ‘Many don’t see it (the strike) as political and that’s their right too and I know that many of them will go there but they will vote PPP at the end of the day so I’m not too worried about that (KN: 09/02/2024).’
When it counts, his constituents will do the politically right thing and given Guyana’s ethnic context, herein lies its dilemma. Ultimately, it does not have a substantial body of citizens willing to stand in protection of the rules and hold governments accountable. Therefore, those who seek to become involved in constitutional reforms will again fail if they do not appreciate this overarching fact and instead proceed with utopian visions and piecemeal excursions.
‘Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe’ (Frederick Douglass, Speech on the twenty-fourth anniversary of emancipation in the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C., Apr. 1886).