Finance Minister prevails


THE RECENT collective agreement between the TT Unified Teachers’ Association (TTUTA) and the chief personnel officer (CPO), signed on 17/05/23, was a bitter pill to swallow. TTUTA, like other public sector unions, found itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

The Minister of Finance would be quite happy with this outcome, having engaged the union in a strategic and tactical battle that saw him exploit the antiquated labour legislative framework to essentially impose an agreement on the union.

The entire process adopted by the employer this time around glaringly highlighted, yet again, the need for a fundamental review of the package of worker legislation, beginning with the Industrial Relations Act (IRA).

From the onset, it was clear that the CPO and by extension the Minister of Finance was not interested in any process of collective negotiations. Repeated attempts by TTUTA to engage the CPO in negotiations were ignored. This stubborn stance essentially imposed a wage freeze on TTUTA’s membership.

When meetings were eventually convened it was clear that there was no attempt to embrace the use of the established negotiations procedures that utilise the external labour market survey (ELMS). By now the "negotiations" were taking place in the public platforms by politicians with a take-it-or-leave-it position very evident.

The adamant stance of the CPO and TTUTA’s corresponding vehement rejection of the four per cent offer unsurprisingly led to a standoff situation which played right into the hands of the Minister of Finance.

Mindful of the powers under the law to refer the matter to the Special Tribunal, the minister wasted no time. The waiting game had paid off and the union was right where the employer wanted. The teachers of the nation were once again at the mercy of the Special Tribunal whose previous incarnations were unfavourable to teachers.

The ultimate power vested in the Special Tribunal was now hanging ominously over the heads of teachers and the events that subsequently led to the signing of the agreement on 17/5/23 being the outcome of an ultimatum where the stakes were too high to gamble further. TTUTA’s general council yielded. The minister got his way.

While teachers may be disappointed with the paltry increase in remuneration, what is even more troubling and worrisome is the manner in which the events unfolded. This process once again glaringly revealed the vulnerability of workers in the existing package of labour laws.

While unions have consistently called for urgent amendments to these laws, such calls have also been consistently and strategically ignored by successive governments.

The concept of collective bargaining has been assuming diminishing prominence in the employer/employee relationship. Unfortunately, the prevailing political landscape does not hold out much optimism for the status quo to change anytime soon.

Labour leaders and their respective dwindling memberships continue to be slowly stripped of their rights as the economic gap between the rich and poor steadily widen, with ever increasing amounts of the country’s wealth being concentrated in the hands of a few. This power knows no political limits and continues to be consolidated while unions operate in silos.

Labour leaders who rose to the prominence of ministerial office have been rendered helpless in their quest to right these wrongs because the working masses fail to use their people power to reverse the diminution of the labour voice. The experience of TTUTA is not unique and should serve as a catalyst for the consolidation of labour voices to repel legal systems that translate into social injustice and widening inequity.

From the increasing use of contract labour, the prolonged delays in arriving at collective agreements and the inordinate amount of time it takes for a union to gain recognised majority status, organised labour has been forced to fight against the odds, with worker exploitation steadily gaining the upper hand.

TTUTA has and continues to be relentless in its pursuit of social justice and equity for its membership, even if it has to seek redress in the courts. Fortunately, the CPO has agreed to undertake another job evaluation exercise and TTUTA will continue to press ahead with its demand to use the ELMS as the basis for salary negotiations (as was previously recommended by the Special Tribunal) to ensure teachers are adequately compensated for the critical role they play in nation building.

The national community would be well advised to pay close attention to the steady undermining of the collective bargaining process by no lesser an employer than the Government.


"Finance Minister prevails"

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