Headline — 25 January 2013 — by Miriam Longsworth
Public officers, teachers demonstrate on Tuesday!

Unions to PM Barrow: “There is no money for our raise-a-pay? How come you find big money for your many unneeded contract officers and for paying criminals?”

With reference to the demands of the Belize National Teachers’ Union (BNTU) for a salary increase for themselves and public officers, Prime Minister Dean Barrow said an emphatic ‘no” on Monday, and today, Thursday, the BNTU, the Association of Public Service Senior Managers (APSSM) and the Public Service Union (PSU), in response, have confirmed that they will demonstrate next Tuesday in the City of Belmopan in front of the National Assembly Building.

The Prime Minister had stated that the government does not have the money for any salary increase at this time, adding that the only way that that could be made possible was by raising taxes.

The unions appeared unimpressed by Barrow’s statement. They are asking for increases of 12 percent per annum for junior workers and 10 percent per annum for senior workers over three years. Unions have said that they see their request as more of an adjustment to their salary, rather than an increase. They feel the adjustment is necessary because the cost of living has increased, but their salaries have not.

They argue that if the government can find money to pay gang members to keep down crime, they can find money for teachers and public service employees.

Additionally, the unions argue, if the government can find large sums of money to pay their contract officers, who are mainly party supporters that the government does not need to function, then it can find money to pay them.

Amandala was told this afternoon that research being done by union members showed so far that in seven ministries alone, there are 104 contract officers employed, costing the government $5.4 million a year. That figure excludes the $1.4 million it costs the government per year for the contract officers’ gratuity and allowances, the unions said, and they added that the exercise is incomplete, because there are still more ministries to examine, so the final figure would be much higher.

The APSSM issued a press release today, Thursday, asking its members and prospective members to stand in solidarity with the BNTU and the PSU, to protest government’s position on the salary adjustment for teachers and public officers in the rally in Belmopan.

The national president of the BNTU, Luke Palacio, and the Council of Management of the BNTU issued a press release yesterday, Wednesday, stating that the Joint Unions Negotiating Team (JNT) – a makeup of all three unions involved – had engaged in several negotiations with the government, known as the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which consists of 23 proposals to the government, including allowances, salaries and other benefits for public officers and teachers.

The release stated that only eight of those 23 CBA proposals had positive conclusions, but none of them was Proposal One, which was for a salary adjustment for public officers and teachers. That was denied with the stated reason that the government could not afford to give salary increases at this time.

The General Council of the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) met last Friday, January 18, and in a release, expressed “its total and unconditional solidarity with its three affiliates: namely the Association of Public Service Senior Managers (APSSM), the Belize National Teachers’ Union (BNTU) and the Public Service Union (PSU) in the stand they have taken as it relates to the current status of their Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations on a salary adjustment.”

The three branches say that Tuesday’s rally is a “peaceful demonstration” that will last from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The BNTU had written in its release of Wednesday, January 23, that “it is our constitutional right to protest against this move by the Government of Belize and to stand in solidarity to express our dissatisfaction with this call made by our elected representatives on this issue.”

PSU President Marvin Blades told Amandala today that his membership has to show their support and will have members present at the demonstration on Tuesday.

“Our membership has agreed that we will show our support and we’ll have people physically there at the demonstration because it is a joint effort,” Blades said. “You keep hearing over the media that it’s just BNTU; no, it’s BNTU, APSSM, and PSU. All of us together, doing our demonstration. So we will be out there. And some of our public officers who will not be out there will definitely be showing some different kinds of support in their different departments. But for the majority of our officers, they’ll be out there.”

Blades said that the PSU will not be having a strike as such, but will have some of its members present at the demonstration.

“In each of our branches, a couple of our membership will be out because we are not at that level yet,” he said. “We just want to show our solidarity to our brother. It’s a joint effort, so we have to be out there even though we have a lot of essential services. So we’re getting the people who are not mostly affected with those essential services, because we’re not at strike action yet, but you done know if we reach at that level, then it will be a full-blown-out PSU, BNTU and APSSM action. But as it is, we are part of the demonstration and we will join the demonstration. And you will see all three presidents out there, too.”

President of the APSSM, Jose Castellanos, said that they have done their calculations of what it would cost the government to provide a salary adjustment, and they believe that the government is able to meet their demands. The government claims that it would cost them over $300 million to provide the increase, but Castellanos said it is less.

Castellanos said that the salary amendment should not result in increased taxes, as the government has asserted.

“But the important thing is that this increase, this adjustment, will not increase taxes. I just made that point on the radio station this morning that a number of things are happening,” he said. “One, we have shown the government that what they gave us in December was overestimating their expenditure by almost $75 million, so that’s the first thing. We are projecting that for next year – and we are talking about salary adjustments for next year, not this year – for next year we are projecting that there will be a surplus.”

Castellanos said that the PM had stated that he would be willing to link the salary adjustment to the expected surplus and give the unions a portion of the surplus. Castellanos said that if that is indeed the case, then the unions are open to working with that option.

“If we had been made that offer at our last meeting in January, we wouldn’t be here where we are today, because at that time they were simply saying no, no, no, no to everything,” he said. “We asked for indicators, no indicators. We were flexible, (but) they were saying no, no, no.”

Castellanos said that they had been given numbers by the government that just do not add up, and the unions feel disrespected by that.

“We have had problems, not with him [the PM], but with the negotiating team in terms of giving us numbers that do not make sense; they don’t add up,” he said. “And for us it’s disrespect, because we can analyze numbers… This year we had seven percent growth as opposed to what they were saying in December, which is three point five percent. That means $35 million was in additional revenue, which we knew, and now we showed it to them. In fact, this year the economy grew as much as it grew in four years.”

Castellanos explained that every time the economy grows by one percent, that’s an additional $10 million dollars in revenue. So if there is growth by seven percent for next year, there will be $70 million in additional revenue, plus a projected $66 million worth of Superbond savings. That means that there will be no deficit for next year.

“That’s why I’m saying that we’re prepared to link the adjustments to the surplus, which PM suggested last night,” he said. “He’s saying that if we have a surplus – he knows we have a surplus, a current surplus – he’s prepared to link that percentage to the salary adjustment. We have no problem with that: that’s what we were looking for, for tangible measures that we can link our adjustments to, because we are talking about next year, not this year. Next year we won’t be in a deficit; we’ll have money to save and it will continue to increase our foreign reserves. So we are heartened by that position and we are hoping that we can have an amicable solution and have a win-win situation for both of us.”

Castellanos said that he sees a strike as a losing situation, so he is hoping for a workable solution between the government and the unions.

For his part, BNTU President Luke Palacio said there had been negotiations for a salary increase since last year, but to no avail. The unions continued to stand their ground, and after all the failed negotiations, they decided to take matters to where they are currently.

“We had to get into this mode, inform our members, get their support for what it is we were intending to do, so that we could put down some kind of pressure on the government that we are not going to tolerate this disrespect that they are showing to the unions,” he said. “We are not asking them for anything that is impossible.”

Palacio said that they were told at meetings in the past that even if they suggested plausible ways for the government to have a surplus, it did not guarantee them a raise. He said that “that is not negotiating in good faith,” and it led the unions to where they are now. Palacio said that the PM has requested that a meeting be held with the union representatives after the demonstration in Belmopan.

“We are saying, we are prepared to meet with the Prime Minister after the demonstration if matters can be resolved,” he said. “Like brother Castellanos said, if they are prepared now to sit down and listen to our proposals, and of course give us something tangible, because we don’t want a pie-in-the-sky promise. We want something tangible, because we have figures. And we are not using figures that we are creating; we are using figures from their budget. Every time we discuss with them, it is figures that they have produced that we use to show them.”

Palacio said that he believes that the government keeps giving the unions the worst-case scenarios in terms of the figures the government produces for them.

“We are not going to sit down and take it idly; we are going to continue with our demonstration on Tuesday, and it is after that that we can meet with the Prime Minister and see what the way forward would be,” he said.

Palacio dismissed the government’s claim that the yearly increments that teachers receive could be sufficient. He said that those increments are performance-based, and additional qualification is necessary to ensure the continuation of those increments after teachers have reached the four-point scale in their salary. The unions are requesting a 10 to 12 percent per annum salary increase over a three-year period, but they are open to negotiating what the government would be able to offer. A “no” to their request, however, is unacceptable, they say.

The unions have said they have no other strikes or demonstrations planned for after Tuesday, but if there is no favorable outcome from the meeting with the PM, they will decide what steps should be taken thereafter.

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