President of the Teachers’ Union, Oswald Robinson. (IWN file photo)

By Kenton X. Chance

The Collective Bargaining Agreement that the Teachers’ Union signed with the government in 2005, an element of which is now the subject of a court battle, will be “paramount” during the new biennium, says newly re-elected union head, Oswald Robinson.

“Any trade union leader must keep foremost defending the collective agreement,” Robinson, who was re-elected amid a challenge from incumbent First Vice-President, Sheldon Govia, told iWitness News on Monday.

He said the Union is considering appealing the judgement of High Court judge Justice Brian Cottle, who on Feb. 10 ruled as “entirely hopeless” a claim by the Union that Article 16 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement does not contravene Section 26(1)(d) of the Constitution of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), as the Government later claimed.

“… for sure, if we are able to mobilise the funding, we don’t know what the cost will be like, all of those things were are considering – this matter will go forward to the next level (appeal),” Robinson told iWitness News.

The case came about after the Ralph Gonsalves Government, citing lack of vacancies, did not rehire three teachers who resigned their positions to contest the December 2010 general election on behalf of the main opposition New Democratic Party and lost.
The teachers, Elvis Daniel, Addison Thomas, and Kenroy Johnson, each had been teachers for more than three decades.

They had thought that the Collective Agreement that the Ralph Gonsalves Government had signed with the Teachers’ Union on Nov. 3, 2005, allowed them leave to contest national elections and to be rehired if they lost.

But the government said that that element of the agreement was “aspirational” because it was unconstitutional, claiming that all parties knew this when the accord was signed.

Robinson told iWitness News that the Union’s executive has been discussing the ruling and has contacted their lawyer to do some analysis.

The case is being handled by the chambers of former senator and election candidate for the Gonsalves-led Unity Labour Party administration, Jomo Thomas, who was elected Speaker of the House of Assembly on Dec. 29.

Robinson said that the Union is satisfied with the firm’s representation.

He noted that the legal team includes Ruggles Fergusson out of Grenada and Shirlan “Zita” Barnwell — who has since been appointed a senator for the main opposition New Democratic Party.

“The lawyers can do as much as they could, but, at the end of the day, it’s the judge that makes the ruling,” Robinson told iWitness News.

He said there has been mixed reaction among the public, adding that some persons “have the matter mixed up”.

Robinson explained that Article 16 emerged as a result of the teachers’ struggle of 1975, adding that one of the major demands then was the repeal the 1971 Public Service Act, which curtailed teachers from speaking in public on issues of national importance.

That Act was repealed sometime later as a result of the efforts of the union, he said, adding that the Act interfered with freedom of expression.

He further said the 1966 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization -International Labour Organisation recommendation clearly speaks to encouraging teachers to run for public office and to have their pensions benefits intact if they are unsuccessful.

“Article 16 was crafted with that in mind. It had nothing to do with which political party you run for,” Robinson told iWitness News.

“Our understanding is that allowing teachers to run for political office is more or less deepening the democracy of teachers and allowing teachers to serve at the highest level of the land.”

He said there are persons who moved out of teaching and into higher office and that is commendable and Article 16 wanted to formalise that.

He said the union negotiated in good faith with the government.

“We have not made any final decision (about appealing the court ruling), because we are counting the cost and so on. But we just want the general public to be aware that this has nothing to do with which political party is in power, because everything seems to be along a political line,” he said.

Robinson said that he is recommitting in the new term to work in the interest of all teachers.

“The Teachers’ Union is not a political party. I keep a clear focus. The teachers of this country, they are very dear to me. This is not the first time they have elected me, and I am committed to representing the teachers regardless of their colour, their creed, their political affiliation,” said Robinson, who will begin his third consecutive two-year term on April 7.

“They have a right to belong to any organisation they want to. That is their right. They have freedom of association and I respect that to the highest degree. I am just a servant of the teachers, to serve them and I will give representation to anyone. I will endeavour to do my best. I don’t pick and choose who to represent,” he told iWitness News.