Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, the self styled “political World Boss”, on the heels of a historic fifth-term win, in which his Unity Labour Party (ULP) lost the popular vote, seems ready to honour the agreement he signed with the Teachers’ Union in 2005 and later labelled aspirational.
Article 16 of the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement allows teachers of at least three years’ standing to secure six months’ no pay leave to contest general elections.
If unsuccessful at the polls, the teacher would return to the classroom at the beginning of a term, with all benefits intact.
However, in 2010, when three teachers — Addison “Bash” Thomas, Kenroy Johnson and Elvis Daniel — wanted to contest the polls on behalf of the main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), their applications for election leave were denied.
The teachers resigned their positions and were not re-employed after losing at the polls.
The Teachers’ Union took the government to court over the matter and won, with the Court of Appeal ruling that the government had not put in place a legal provision, as provided for under the Constitution, to allow the teachers to contest the polls.
The court also ordered that the trio be paid their pensions and gratuities on reaching retirement age. Thomas and Johnson have since reached retirement age.
However, Gonsalves, who is famed for having said that citizens can go to whatever court they want, they “have to come back to Papa”, a reference to himself, has not had his government pass the law needed to give effect to the election leave provision of the agreement.
Also, in 2010, teacher Elvis Charles quit the service to contest the elections on behalf of the ULP. He was unsuccessful but did not reply for his job, having been made a senator.
The situation was the same in 2015 for Debbie Charles, another ULP candidate, who was made a senator after her failure at the polls.
Charles also failed to win her seat in the 2020 elections.
And, ahead of the 2020 polls, teacher Shevern John, an NDP candidate was forced to resign her job to contest the election, notwithstanding the court ruling, when the government denied her election leave.
Speaking at his swearing-in ceremony on Saturday, Gonsalves noted that it was his government that set up a national reconciliation portfolio.
He, however, said that there are persons who would chop off a hand outstretched to them in reconciliation.
“… is only one hand you have when you stretch it out — one right hand. So you have to do it with good sense and sensibility. There is, nevertheless a need, as you point out, for reconciliation,” he said in response to Governor General Dame Susan Dougan earlier comments.
Gonsalves mentioned the reinstatement of teachers as one issue on which there has been a lot of debate, noting that the matter went to court.
He noted the constitutional bar to public officer running for political office, but noted, that the nation’s supreme law also “provides the possible framework to put a statute in place to work out the mechanisms where that can be done efficaciously”.
Gonsalves, however, said that this is not easy.
“And that’s why I have always mentioned that what is in the collective bargaining agreement is aspirational,” he said, adding that even if public servants secure election leave, it doesn’t mean they are no longer a public servants.
“You have to, nevertheless resign,” he said, adding, “The question is reemployment.
“Now, the government, the executive arm of the government, we don’t employ people. It’s the Public Service Commission, an independent and protected body under the Constitution,” Gonsalves said.
He, however, noted that the courts have ruled that the property rights remains for public servants who rely on the government’s promise of a possible reengagement.
“… and you have to pay people their pension and that has been done”.
He told the governor general that he would go further in the spirit in which she had spoken.
The prime minister said that in relation to teachers who contested the 2010, 2015 and 2020 general elections, who have not reached retirement age, he will hold a conversation with the chairman of the Public Service Commission.
This conversation, Gonsalves said, is to indicate to him whether the PSC chair, along with the Chief Personnel Officer can work alongside with the Ministry of Education and the Cabinet Secretary to see whether the teachers who are not yet at retirement age and wish to return to the teaching service can indicate formally to the PSC.
“… and it would be good if they copy it to the Cabinet Secretary so that it can be brought to my attention that I can have a conversation with the chairman of the Public Service Commission and that if the chairman of the Public Service Commission thinks that it is proper in all the circumstances upon my request for that to be effected, well then it would be effected,” Gonsalves said.
“But I can’t direct it, because the chairman holds an independent office and I am very careful with the words I use but I think that will address and important issue as our own willingness to continue the process of reconciliation…”