THE ROLE and function of the Chief Personnel Officer (CPO) is clearly defined in the law. It is the department of government charged with the responsibility for determining and/or advising on pay and other terms and conditions of service for a wide spectrum of employees within the public sector (Civil Service Act of 1965).
It does this through consultations and negotiations with the appropriate recognised associations and unions via a process commonly known as collective bargaining, whereby the terms and conditions of service of public officers are determined.
The act also makes provision for the department in its functioning to be subject to the directions of the Minister of Finance in respect of negotiations with the appropriate recognised associations and unions.
Individual public officers are thus unable to “negotiate” with the CPO and when agreements for specified periods are derived upon between the CPO and any recognised majority unit (RMU), it is binding on all public officers covered under that RMU. These negotiations are usually intense and prolonged, owing to the distant starting positions of parties. If agreement cannot be reached, the law provides a mechanism for the matter to be referred to the Special Tribunal of the Industrial Court.
While many agreements have been arrived at between the CPO and RMUs after long, hard, intensive and protracted negotiations, there have been instances where matters have been referred to the Special Tribunal after a breakdown in negotiations and subsequent judgments handed down that are legally binding on both parties.
Most RMUs would prefer to hammer out agreements around the table of the CPO without the direct intrusion of any politician as envisioned in the Westminster doctrine of separation of powers between the legislature and the executive. While the act does make provision for the CPO to take directives from the Minister of Finance, such advice has historically been discrete and out of the public glare, opting instead for the CPO to bear the full brunt of public officers’ wrath and resentment.
Unfortunately, recent developments regarding negotiations between the CPO and public sector RMUs tell a different story. The current government has seemingly broken with the tradition of carefully maintaining a calculated distance from the CPO/RMU bargaining table, opting instead to adopt a more direct and public role in the negotiation process.
Offers and counter offers for public officers have been made by politicians, with the CPO being relegated to spectator on the sidelines. This has effectively scuttled the collective bargaining process through a brazen “take it or leave it” position. This state of affairs has unsurprisingly angered public sector RMUs since they feel it is a gross betrayal of the principle of collective bargaining.
It is a blatant attempt to disempower workers and diminish the role of trade unions. It sets a dangerous precedent for the maintenance of a good industrial relations climate and the preservation of social order. It is a tactic that has backfired on many politicians of bygone eras who, seemingly intoxicated with power, felt sufficiently emboldened to treat workers and their unions with such contempt. There is apparently no meaningful attempt to instruct the CPO to meaningfully engage the RMUs to explore/arrive at creative non-traditional solutions.
In the case of TTUTA there is a brazen attempt to sideline/disregard a legally binding agreement that exists between the CPO and TTUTA regarding the use of an external labour market survey (ELMS) as the basis for salary negotiations. This scientifically sound methodology as deployed in the past has revealed gaps between what teachers are being paid and what they ought to be paid given prevailing economic market conditions and was adapted to the development of salary settlements for teachers, bearing in mind the principle of affordability by the employer. Such is the power of true negotiations which is engendered through healthy respect for each other’s positions and a willingness to arrive at an amicable resolution.
Section 14 (3) of the Civil Service Act also indicates that the Minister of Finance, before making recommendations for remuneration under 14(2), shall consider (a) requirements of the civil service and (b) take into account the rates of pay and other terms and conditions of employment prevailing in Trinidad and Tobago for similar work outside the civil service and the relationship of duties of the various classes and grades within the civil service and be guided by the considerations set out in sections 20 (2) (a) to (f) of the Industrial Relations Act. Inability to pay does not negate the obligation to pay a fair wage.