By Youri Kemp
Caribbean News Now associate editor
ST GEORGES, Grenada — Less than two months after accusing doctors and other hospital staff of being thieves and pilfering hospital equipment, and linking that to the challenges in the public health sector, thereby precipitating a strong rebuke from public sector unions, Grenadian prime minister, Dr Keith Mitchell, is yet again embroiled in a confrontation with public services unions, this time over civil service pensions.
In a statement on November 16, 2018, the Grenada Technical and Allied Workers Union (GTAWU) on behalf of the public sector unions and staff associations (PSUSA), comprised of the General Public Workers Union, various armed services unions and an assorted grouping of public sector unions, is protesting against the Pensions Engagement Committee (PEC) and what they claim is the “dishonesty” of the PEC in reneging on a February 2018 memorandum of understanding.
The PSUSA claims that they signed the MOU of February 18, 2018, on the understanding that the gratuities would be based on 25 percent or the pre-1983 understanding and agreed upon rate prior to the passage of the Pensions Disqualification Act of 1983, reached between the respective unions and the government.
Mitchell’s re-elected New National Party (NNP) administration, after winning the March 13, 2018, general election in Grenada by a consecutive clean sweep at the polls, through the PEC, wanted the PSUSA to accept a 50 percent decrease in the gratuity.
Now, the unions have been offered a mere two percent gratuity, claiming that there was no agreement made between the government and the PSUSA that they agreed to any particularly figure.
In a surprise move, the government of Grenada had opened up the Supreme Court Registry over the weekend to make a last-ditching filing against the unions, an action that is said to be illegal, as the courts are supposed to be closed on the weekends in addition to public holidays.
Some feel strongly that, leaning on a 1998 precedent in a case brought by Irwin McQueen against the Public Service Commission, it is clear that all public officers, including those who joined the service after 1985, are entitled to pensions as provided for in the constitution.
More importantly, the MOU that was signed between the PEC and the PSUSA prior the March 2018 General Election can only become lawful if a referendum is held to change the Public Pensions Act as enshrined in the constitution.
The main opposition party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), wasted no time in standing with the public sector unions and this impasse with the NNP regime.
The NDC in a statement sent to Caribbean News Now said: “The National Democratic Congress views with great concern the rapid deterioration of the industrial climate in the country.
“As we understand it, the unions signed a memorandum of understanding with the government relating to the outstanding and long delayed issue over public sector pension benefits. The timing of the signing of the MOU on the eve of the last elections exposed the opportunistic intent of the government.
“The time has come for the government to deliver on its promises as detailed in the MOU and other surrounding discussions with the unions. It is indeed very disturbing that while the parties are at the negotiating table, the government has embarked on a systematic campaign of threats of salary deductions, intimidation and victimization against the workers. Filing an injunction over the weekend in an attempt to stop workers from exercising their right to withhold their labour, an unprecedented step in this country represents a serious threat to our democracy by an administration that increasingly demonstrates worrying dictatorial tendencies.”
The NDC release goes on to state: “Public sector pensions is a right granted by the constitution and we accept the unions’ version that, at all times, only 25 percent gratuity was on the table. All that’s left for government to do now is to sit with the unions to work out the modalities of payment. The fact that the unions have participated in various sessions to find a way out of the impasse speaks to their goodwill and respect for the negotiation process. They must be applauded for their responsible conduct.
“Having now wisely withdrawn the oppressive court action, we now call on the government to:
1. Return to the bargaining table in good faith so as to seek a solution in the interest of all concerned.
2. Immediately withdraw the Cabinet Conclusion which ordered deductions from salaries for workers who properly took strike action.”
Labour Commissioner, Cyrus Griffith, has been placed at the forefront of this situation as reported by the New Today Grenada, after members of the Grenada Union of Teachers (GUT) walked off of their job for two days last week in solidarity with the unions, prompting the government of Grenada to cut them for days off- exacerbating the already tense standoff between both parties.
Griffith is reported to have stepped in to hold talks with the warring parties – the Government Negotiating Team (GNT) headed by Cabinet Secretary, Beryl Isaac and the public sector bodies – Grenada Union of Teachers (GUT), Public Workers Union (PWU), (GTAWU) along with the Police Welfare Association, the Royal Police Force Gazetted Officers Association, and Her Majesty’s Prison Officers Welfare Association.
In the meantime, public service unions in Grenada staged a massive protest march on Tuesday.