Swift resolution needed in dispute with teachers

Every government has a delicate balance to strike in taking care of public servants and meeting their reasonable demands while ensuring it is being responsible in the allocation of public funds.

While every administration claims to be union friendly, they have all had clashes with trade unions seeking better financial and working arrangements for their members. 

Last week, the Bahamas Public Services Union caused significant disruptions at Lynden Pindling International Airport and other airports in The Bahamas as it upped the pressure on the government to pay millions of dollars it says are owed to its members who work at those facilities.

A court order obtained by the Airport Authority brought that action to an end, but as far as we are aware, the dispute remains unresolved.

Now, one week after Bahamas Union of Teachers (BUT) President Belinda Wilson issued an ultimatum to the Davis administration to conclude negotiations for a new industrial agreement for its members or face industrial action at the start of the new school year, Wilson has announced that both sides have reached an impasse.

She has put union members on notice that come the start of the new school year in about three weeks, there will be industrial action.

The key issue relates to financial provisions of a new agreement, as is often the sticking point in such negotiations.

The old agreement with the BUT expired four years ago. According to Wilson, negotiations for a new one started in May 2019, were on hold during the initial year of the pandemic, and resumed in April 2021.

The BUT was among those unions that declined to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) ahead of the general election. The PLP pledged to address key labor issues and the unions that signed on publicly backed the party as the next party to form the government of The Bahamas.

Though the BUT did not sign the MOU, the Davis administration is duty bound to conclude an agreement with the union.

While public sector teachers were among those fortunate enough to keep their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic when thousands of Bahamians were put out of work, they have had a particularly challenging experience navigating the new normal of the education world.

This has included having to use the impersonal and technically problematic online learning platform, while trying to keep the children who did sign on engaged and interested.

Many teachers have remained committed despite the struggles, which have included dealing with their own children during school hours, dealing with significant personal losses suffered by their families in some cases due to COVID-19, and all of the accompanying stress.

The challenges with virtual learning have been well documented, both locally and in countries around the world.

In some communities in our country, many students did not log on for learning at all; others seldom did.

We have yet to see the full impact of the learning loss, which has occurred as a result.

Education Minister Glenys Hanna-Martin has spoken extensively about this crisis.

During the budget debate in the House of Assembly last month, she revealed that thousands of students had still not returned to schools since they were re-opened for in-person learning.

More recently, she told Parliament the government will start testing students for learning loss “within the early days of October”. 

No time is a good time for teachers to strike, but given the deepening crisis in education, the Davis administration must do everything in its power to ensure that the school year starts without any further disruptions to learning.

We do not at this point understand all of the specifics of the financial demands the union is making and we are well aware of the fiscal crisis the public coffers are still in with government debt projected to hit $11.6 billion this fiscal year.

We note that in his budget communication to Parliament in May, Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Philip Davis announced that teachers were among the public servants set to get raises.

Obviously, whatever allocation the government has for that is not seen by the BUT to be adequate.

We hope the Davis administration is able to strike the right balance and take care of our teachers in time for the start of the new school year.

Our children and our society overall cannot afford another day of interrupted learning.

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