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November 16, 2012

President of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers Union (SVGTU) Oswald Robinson on Wednesday defended himself against accusations by a union member that he was sounding like an apologist for the government.{{more}}

“I didn’t want to say anything at all, until the president started to sound apologetic to the government,” Philbert John, deputy principal of Central Leeward Secondary School, said at the union’s annual meeting.

John’s comments came as Robinson reported on a meeting with International Monetary Fund (IMF) representatives who visited St Vincent and the Grenadines from October 23 to November 1 for the annual discussions on the economy.

Robinson said the IMF was “shocked” that the Dr Ralph Gonsalves government was offering to pay, in December, half of the 3 per cent salary increase owed to public servants since January 2011.

“If we demand 3 per cent now, the teachers who are at the bottom of the ladder, those are the ones first who would go…,” Robinson added.

He was responding to a question regarding whether the union was accepting the Government’s offer.

But John told the meeting at the Thomas Saunders Secondary School in Kingstown “there is something that you call text and there is subtext.

“And the subtext carries the real message…,” he further told the 54 persons present, who were six short of the required quorum.

The meeting on the upper floor of the two-storey building was not a public one, but the PA system used made the proceedings audible outside the building, where SEARCHLIGHT took notes.

John said that since the Unity Labour Party took office in March 2001, salaries have been legislated rather than negotiated.

He said another member’s question about whether the union has accepted the Government’s offer was valid.

“In other words, are we going to put up a resistance? Are we going to reject the idea of a 1.5 per cent?” John further said.

“We have not answered that question. And there is something called open acceptance, where you say, ‘Yes, no problem’, and there is something called tacit acceptance, where you say nothing. And, as the old people say, ‘Silence gives consent.’

“… We have not gone back to the Arnos Vale meeting, where we made a decision that we mandate the government to pay the 3 per cent by December 31. Have we held back on that decision?

“Whether or not we agree, the government will pay it, but for the record, we have to say something,” John further said.

John’s comment generated much off-microphone discussion in the room, which was dark because the attendant at the school had left and locked the room where the switches are located, the meeting was told.

But Robinson pleaded for order as the crosstalk continued, saying, “Could we have some order. If we can’t have order, I would have to put some of us out the meeting.

“The point of the matter is this: I am not making any apology,” he said, when things quieted down. “I was just saying what happened at a meeting with the IMF…”

Robinson further said that his statements to the media after the prime minister’s announcement in October, that the union still wanted the full 3 per cent increase reflected a decision the union took in August.

“Who made the decision that we needed 3 per cent? Was it the executive, isolated? Did we have a meeting after that? Those are things we have to ask ourselves. So, with due respect to the brother, I am not apologising to anybody,” he said.

John later said he did not want people to leave “with the wrong impression of what I said.

“I heard what the president said and that amounted to a tacit acceptance … I know we are not in a position to accept or reject, but … depending on your response [to the government], we are saying ‘Well no problem.’

“… This should have been the meeting where we re-establish our position on that. But we are not in a position to do that now … But the question was a valid question: what is the union’s position,” John said at the meeting, ahead of the annual teachers’ Solidarity rally on Friday, to commentate the tear gassing and arrest of protesting teachers in 1975.

Robinson was reticent when SEARCHLIGHT asked him after the meeting for a comment on the proceedings.

“What is the outcome? It’s really an in house meeting,” he said.

“It’s not really a meeting for the public,” he further added. “We looked at internal matters of the union and how we could improve.

“I don’t really want to make any comment,” he further said when asked for details about the discussion.

In an earlier address, Robinson told the meeting that some people seem to think that other professions are more valuable than teaching.

He said Caribbean Community model legislation was becoming domestic law without the contribution of teachers.

“… teachers are important stakeholders and we must let our voice be heard at the regional level.”

He said “black angels” had leaked to the union proposed legislation the Gonsalves administration was planning to introduce and the union had informed the Ministry of Education that the bill should not proceed without the input of the union.

Previous legislation, Robinson said, detailed the rights of students and parents, but did not mention the rights of teachers.

Discussion of pension reform, he further said, was being started “in a subtle way” with radio talk show hosts saying that retirement age in another Caribbean country had been increased.

Teachers, Robinson said, have to articulate their destiny.

“We can’t depend on politicians … we can’t depend on others to do it … So this is not the time for us to sit down and look at the little things … because we might just set ourselves up,” the union president said, adding that teachers must “move forward with pride and dignity.”

He told the meeting that union leaders are focused and looking out for the interest of the membership.

Robinson further said that another union here was claiming to represent teachers, but added that the SVGTU is the only legitimate bargaining agent for the profession. ([email protected])