The main unions representing public sector workers in St. Vincent and the Grenadines say they want the government to meet before general elections later this year their demand for one’s month’s salary tax-free in lieu of salary increases since 2011.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves and other critics of the union have accused the unions of being political in light of the deadline.
In an interview with President of the Teachers’ Union, Oswald Robinson and head of the Public Service Union, Elroy Boucher, on Sunday, I-Witness News asked about the timeline and other issues relating to the labour dispute.
IWN: The Prime Minister has accused the unions of being involved in politics and he cited the fact that the unions have said that they want the payment to be made before general elections. Why is it important that the payment be made before general elections?
Boucher: After elections, one really doesn’t know who is going to be in charge of the country, which government is going to win the elections. This situation has been created by the current government. It is only fair for it to be dealt with by the current government in a period in which the government is in charge. So, it really wouldn’t be wise on our part to extend that into 2016, unless, of course, we know that the current government is going to win the election, and nobody knows that that can happen. Because, after all, it is an election.
IWN: The Prime Minister spoke in his address on Friday about improvements in the situation of teachers. He said that they get more money now that in 2011 and the other benefits. The average size of a class is smaller. How does the union respond to that?
Robinson: The average is a national one which is not a true reflection of every school. A grade K class at CW Prescod primary may have 32 students to one teacher,” he said, adding that the situation is similar in most schools in Kingstown. So when the Prime Minister quotes 1:15, that’s an average, a national average. Sometimes, people say that you have less students and you should produce more, but the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines does not have any policy when it comes to special education or inclusive education. And one educator in the ministry of education said that in every primary school, every 10 children you have, you would have one that requires special education. It is the Teachers’ Union who started a programme in special education and is taking the lead as a professional organisation.
IWN: The Government has suggested that in order to meet this payment, it has outlined only social programmes and says it will have to either reduce the allocation or cut completely the budgeted allocation to those programmes. What is your view on this?
Boucher: The government also told us at that meeting, when it was raised by Burns Bonadie, that they said to borrow the money to pay the one-off salary, the government said that they were unable to do that because of the interest on loans and that sort of stuff.”
But less than two months later, you have a figure of some 48 million dollars that was borrowed. Why did that not impact on the social programme? When it is convenient, the Prime Minster raised the issue of social programmes to play on the public minds. All the borrowing that has been going on, public servants have to pay back all those monies, but we are not hearing anything about social programmes. And I’ve always said, politicians behave true to their nature. You get up on a platform and, off the cuff, you increase the Poor Relief, which amounts to some one point something million dollars. And it is not that we are opposed to that, because we gladly welcome that. But if you can do that just by the snap of your finger, then you expect us to believe that you cannot pay the one-month salary tax-free?
IWN: Are you saying that you believe the government can find some creative way to do it?
Boucher: Precisely. I believe that if the prime minister really wants to lend some attention to this, it can be done. But I also believe that the Prime Minister really has very little regard for the union and the workers of this country. It is a Labour government when it is convenient. And he likes to throw a lot of stuff into it. It is the same labour government that is about to send home 20-something aviation security workers. That Labour government. Do they care about anything and the stress that they are now going through with their mortgages and their families to feed? There is no care. They don’t really care about that; that’s just politics.
IWN: What is the context in which they are going to be sent home?
Boucher: Their jobs are going to be made redundant.
Boucher: Why is what I really don’t know, because the union has not been engaged in this whole thing, which is gross disrespect to the trade union.
IWN: There is a suggestion, not just by the Prime Minister but among some members of the general population, that essentially there is a choice. You either ‘bear bob’ or run the risk of people being sent home.
Robinson: Let me use, for example, a graduate teacher who would have already received or achieved his or her maximum. If the prime minister has to send home a graduate, you are talking about approximately $150,000. And if you have 50 graduates in the country, which is better? Is it going to cost the government more to lay off 50 graduates or to pay one month across the board, which is not a salary increase. It is a one-off payment.
And we went to that one-off payment because we were denied the opportunity to negotiate salaries. Salaries have been legislated by this government.
IWN: Regarding the support of your membership, the Prime Minister himself has said the leaderships of the unions are divided on this.
Robinson: No, he is trying to create the division. He has personalised this issue. When a prime minister would come on a platform and tell you are a good man but then he is throwing punches at you, you know? So you have to really rethink. At one point, you are saying, come and let us talk, but you’re on a platform trying to knock down those who you want to talk with. It can’t be fair.
IWN: On social media, it is quite obvious that people are looking at this, at least in their public pronouncements, through political glasses — based on what they support. Is that your view and how do you respond to this?
Robinson: Well, that is the reality. We are living in a divisive nation. People on different sides; there are some people who are more or less indifferent. And any move you make right now, anything you say, people want to label you on one side or the other. And it is very, very unfortunate. I don’t know when our society, when we are going to change that and if we want to change it. Because politics, the partisan politics, is like three meals a day with snacks in between. Even the very colour you wear, people want to label you. When you oppose the government, people say you are for the opposition. When you praise the government, people say you are for the other side.
IWN: I get a sense that you are saying that somehow you believe that the government — at least Mr. Boucher has said so — if it really wants to, it can figure out a way of paying this. Do you think the strike on Tuesday will push the government’s hand?
Robinson: That is the objective. When our membership says demand and do all that is necessary. if you say that to a trade union, one of the options is to take industrial action. You already gave the leadership a mandate to demand, so the leadership would have just calculated the time and say, let us do it now.
IWN: The government recently accessed $6 million from Building & Loan. Do you get a sense that any of this will be coming your way?
Robinson: Well, I heard the prime minister said that that money belongs to the government because they would have put in some $13 million and they only asked them back for — What we did, and we have been genuine and we have consistently valued anything that could help Vincentians. In our meetings with the Prime Minister, we valued all the programmes he said he has embarked on. We value them, we say they are important. Even when he decided to increase the poor relief, we said well done and even said we wish the people could have gotten a little bit more. What we are saying is what is our share. All these programmes that the government has, there is nothing on the list for the public sector workers and teachers. Nothing.
IWN: What happens after Tuesday?
Robinson: Well, the good lord will give direction. We will assess the situation and we will decide what is the next move.