“In the year 2000, the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers’ Union (SVGTU) was fighting against the government. In 2021, it is the government which is fighting against the union.” Major Leacock.
The SVGTU was at the forefront of the ‘Road Block Revolution’ in 2000, which shortened the life of the New Democratic Party (NDP) administration. From the onset of the Unity Labour Party (ULP) government, attempts were made to dismantle the SVGTU. Some executive members were promoted to senior positions, others turned their backs on the union; while some members paid more attention to their party instead of developing the union into a stronger entity. There was a deliberate ploy by the government to silent the SVGTU which has been the most militant trade union in the country.
The teachers continue to struggle, and have been treated with contempt and utter disdain by the ULP administration. The period 2001 to 2021 can be described as the worst for industrial relations between the SVGTU and any government in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. During this period, the government has failed to address the critical issues that are affecting the teaching profession.
The major issue which the union is challenging at this time, is the mandatory COVID- 19 vaccination policy by the government. The government has classified teachers as frontline workers so they are mandated to be vaccinated, and if they are not vaccinated within the time frame specified they will lose their jobs. The union is adamant that the COVID-19 vaccine should not be mandatory.
It would appear that teachers who have not taken the vaccine are likely to lose their jobs. Some teachers who have offered 25 years of service to this country, moulding and shaping young minds will lose their jobs and all of their benefits.
The other issues that are confronting the union are the negotiation of a new collective agreement, the failure of the government to appoint teachers to their correct salary scale and the inconsistent protocols of COVID- 19 in schools.
Addressing the issue of the mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy, Dr Friday stated: “Mandating vaccination is not the way to go. All over the world, governments that have considered such a measure as a way out of the pandemic have retreated from mandatory vaccination. But, not in SVG. It is only through collaborative endeavours, communication, and trust that we can win this battle against COVID- 19. The ULP administration has broken the trust of the people of SVG. They have also neglected to engage with civil society and the private sector in any meaningful way over the years.
Now they have resorted to draconian measures to seek to achieve their aims, while disregarding the impact those measures are having on our public sector workers and the society. They have told teachers, nurses, police officers, other public and state entity workers to get vaccinated or lose their jobs. And, now that the policy has been implemented, workers have been made the problem. Since when did nurses, teachers, other public servants, and police officers become the problem in our country? Does COVID-19 truly require this government to treat its own workers so unfairly and so harshly? No, it does not.
When did these workers with long service and valuable work experience suddenly become disposable so that they can easily be replaced with new recruits? Statements by government officials about replacing police officers, teachers, nurses, including those who have many years of service and experience in their jobs with new recruits disrespect those affected employees. Instead of threatening them with losing their jobs, their experience and skill must be valued, and every effort made to keep them working.”
It must be noted that the NDP will reinstate teachers and other public sector workers who have lost their jobs because of the vaccine mandate when the NDP is returned to office.
The SVGTU has not been able to negotiate a collective agreement with this ULP regime since 2005. And several articles of the 2005 collective agreement have been violated by the government. For instance, Article 16 of the agreement states, ‘ a member of the union of at least three years standing, shall, on application, be granted leave of absence to contest national, general and local elections. The leave shall be no-pay leave for a period not exceeding six months. If that member does not win the election, he or she shall return to his or her original post or one of equivalent status, all benefits intact’. Based on that agreement, three teachers, Kenroy Johnson, Elvis Daniel and Addison ‘Bash’ Thomas contested the 2010 general elections for the NDP. The government did not honour the agreement. The matter was challenged in court which the union won.
The benefits that the teachers are enjoying today, were given to them by the NDP government. It was the NDP administration that recognized the SVGTU as the bargaining agent for teachers, after years of struggle with the former Labour Party administration. Immediately following the recognition of the union, the first collective agreement was signed between the government and the union. It was hailed as a tremendous achievement for both parties. That achievement undoubtedly laid the foundation for the great relationship between the SVGTU and the NDP government.
When teachers got pregnant, they had to resign, and that was abolished by the NDP when it took office in 1984. Teachers were granted maternity leave with pay. Also paternity leave was given to teachers; allowing fathers to spend a period of time with their wives or girlfriends after the birth of their child. In recognition of the invaluable contribution that teachers have been making to education, they were given a duty allowance, a one off payment that has been given to teachers every December.
The union continues to struggle and the government has refused to sit around the ‘bargaining table’ with the union.