High Court Rules in Favor of Guyana Teachers Union

GEORGETOWN, Guyana – Attorney General Anil Nandlall Friday said that the government would be filing an appeal against a High Court ruling that it acted “arbitrarily and illegally” when it stopped deducting the union dues from the salaries of teachers represented by the Guyana Teachers Union (GTU).

ANILNguAttorney General Anil Nandlall, Justice Sandil Kissoon and GTU attorney Attorney Darren Wade“These are vacuous conclusions and that is why it has to be appealed,” Nandlall said, adding that the Irfaan Ali government “will seek a stay of execution of the order in respect of the order in respect of the orders granted.”

But attorney Roysdale Forde, who represented the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) as an interested party,  said “for the first time the court would have determined authoritatively that there exists a right to strike in Guyana”.

GTU president Dr. Mark Lyte, who was present when Justice Sandil Kissoon delivered his near four hour ruling, said that the union is energised by the ruling and looks forward to engaging the government.

He said the “landmark ruling” sets the platform for other unions to fight for collective bargaining.

“As you have seen, over the last several years we have had a lot of imposition and other unions are  equally crying out for collective bargaining so I believe that this ruling give the voices of teachers, the voices of workers a chance to be heard,” he said, adding that the ruling has injected “renewed vigour” into teachers.

He has warned that there could be industrial action if the parties do not return to the bargaining table to discuss the 2019 to 2023 proposals, even as he left the door open for the industrial action to be “averted”.

The GTU had gone to court to challenge the government’s decision to deduct pay from striking teachers and the government’s intention to cease deductions of dues from teachers’ pay in favour of the union.

On March 4th, 2024 court-ordered mediation succeeded in bringing a four-week-old teachers’ strike to an end. Talks then ensued between the union and the Ministry of Education but these later collapsed.

In His ruling on Friday, the High Court judge said that the government, as the employer, had engaged in acts which constitute substantial interference and denial of the fundamental right guaranteed the GTU for collective bargaining.

The judge said also that any deduction or withholding of remuneration by the government from the salaries of teachers who were engaged in industrial action between February 5 and March 4 would be arbitrary, unlawful, unreasonable or unconstitutional and without legal basis.

“Teachers lifted the voices and they asked for bread, they were given stones. The union wrote letters to every person in authority requesting an engagement and to be heard on matters pertaining to the livelihoods and they were ignored. These are the circumstances leading to the strike, which lasted for some 29 days,”Justice Kissoon said.

The High Court deemed the strike from February 5, to March 4, 2024 as “lawful and legitimate.”

Nandlall, speaking to reporters, said the judge in his ruling did not address the distinction between a “right to strike” and a “freedom to strike.”

He told reporters that the Guyana’s constitution provides a freedom, not a right, to strike though doing so may incur sanctions such as withholding payments. In such cases, Nandlall said the issue of “no work, no pay” arises.

“Now you are going to have striking workers who are going to be compensated for work not done. What you have done there is you have turned the law upside down,” he said, adding “you can’t use the tool of interpretation to expand the meaning of words beyond their natural grammatical meaning…. You can’t convert the term freedom into a right using interpretative mechanisms and principles.”

Nandlall said that the government’s decision to deduct and dispatch union dues was a service being offered and not an action enshrined in law. He said he was also concerned about the judge’s pronouncement that the government’s decision to halt the deduction and transferral of those dues were arbitrary.

“It’s not grounded in the Constitution, it’s not grounded in contract, it’s not grounded in any other obligation so is it that the government for the rest of its life must continue offering this gratuitous service?” Nandlall said.

The Attorney General described Justice Kissoon’s language “objectionable”, saying that it was intemperate, giving the impression that “there was almost a deeply driven intent to use very, very strong language that I believe could have been avoided.”

But Forde, in describing the ruling as “significant” and “landmark” that further strengthens the rights of workers in Guyana.

“I can’t underscore it enough but this is a significant win for labour and workers in this country,” Forde said.