Be creative at bargaining table
IN ALL likelihood, several hundred schools where the Government pays the teachers will be closed today for a third straight day, as part of a wage dispute with the Holness administration. Most of the 20,000 teachers have been out since Monday, presumably ill. There are fears of a contagion to rankand-file police, many of whom also fell sick last December, apparently with salary-related illnesses.
We hope, in the circumstances, for the speedy recovery and long-term good health to anyone who is currently affected by the malady, and hope no one else will find cause to be infected by it. But much will depend on how the administration, which has not shown itself to be particularly deft in these situations, manages the problem. In this regard, it has, first, to show greater sensitivity to the norms of industrial relations, including the codes covering collective bargaining. The State can’t appear to be imposing its will.
In an economy that is still growing only slowly, this newspaper, of course, i s sympathetic to the Government’s broad argument of its need to contain its wage bill and, therefore, is calling for restraint from public-sector workers. Indeed, approximately 40 per cent of what the Government collects in taxes goes to pay wages. Moreover, wages and debtservicing account for more than 60 per cent of what the Government spends each year, leaving relatively little for all the other things for which it has obligations.
In other words, unless they borrowed heavily, Jamaican governments have, historically, been forced to underinvest in infrastructure and in other areas critical to the development of the economy. It is i n part to address these issues that the International Monetary Fund has been pressing Jamaica to quickly bring its public-sector wage bill to nine per cent of GDP from the 10.7 per cent at which it started the last fiscal year.
This provides some of the backdrop to the Government’s impasse with the teachers’ union, whose members are being offered a 16 per cent pay rise stretched over four fiscal years, starting with a five per cent hike retroactive to last April, covering the 2017-2018 fiscal year. In the absence of all the related data, including how this offer stacks up against the demand of the teachers’ union, it is difficult to determine the fairness of the offer, notwithstanding its acceptance by some other public-sector unions.
But it is a cardinal principle of industrial relations that one side does not have the authority to impose what it wishes on the other. The process is just what it is: a negotiation. In the event of deadlocks, there are prescribed mechanisms for breaking them, including, in some circumstances, resorting to the courts. That is why we are perturbed by the administration’s announcement of its intention to begin paying adjusted salaries to teachers, despite the absence of an agreement.
The suggestion smacks of union-busting or, at least, an arrogant imposition that can only serve to harden positions. We are not surprised that the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions, most of whose members accepted the pay deal, is opposed to the Government’s intention. Having compromised any high ground it may have occupied on the issue, our suggestion to the administration is that it head back to the negotiation table with teachers – as well as with the police – with creative ideas to break the impasse.
In the event, we repeat an old one of ours for consideration. Given its delayed divestment of state enterprises/agencies under its public-sector reform programme, the Government should accelerate a series of IPOs with some of its better assets, offering public-sector employees shares in lieu of increased pay.
It is not beyond the capacity of policymakers and their advisers to structure such an arrangement. Genuine performance-based incentive payments should also be placed on the table for teachers.