Thu | Jul 2, 2020

Orville Taylor | Watch the rank and the bank: No U but WI says WIGUT

Published:Sunday | June 28, 2020 | 12:22 AM
University of the West Indies, Mona Campus
University of the West Indies, Mona Campus

Understandably, you might have missed the story because it was published last week in another newspaper, but The University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona Branch of the West Indies Group of University Teachers (WIGUT) has rejected outright the proposals from the university’s highest executives, led by Vice Chancellor Hilary Beckles, for a self-inflicted cut in salary as well as ‘benefits’ such as book grants (BG) and study and travel grant (STG). As a practitioner, and scholar of industrial relations, as I’ve done with the University of Technology, Jamaica lecturers and other unions in similar situations, I back WIGUT with both fists clenched.

UWI Mona principal Dale Webber, one of the most decent and truthful academics I know, is caught between the devil and the deep sea, and being a marine biologist, he would take his chances with the latter. The head of the union, Professor Paul Brown, a member of the middle house on the ‘plantation’, knows that the university was in a pre-COVID-19 financial dive and could have done with some oxygen from one of Webber’s scuba tanks.

Economic Mire

Webber inherited a campus in 2018 that was ship-deep in an economic mire, and none of it is his fault. He is faced with a paradox of a university whose stature and reputation were reportedly growing and which spread its tentacles to the four corners of the Earth yet bleeding like a bite from a moray eel. Unfortunately, in stretching like chewing gum in the mouth of a privileged child, the university has fewer resources to take care of some of its core functions. However, The UWI successfully validated its reaccreditation with the University Council of Jamaica, via a strenuous process, which resulted in tight conditionalities, including transparency of its academic and financial operations as well as increased research output. A slippage in any of these parameters puts UWI at risk.

A less-informed reporter and even the university’s data platforms refer to the aforementioned entitlements as benefits. But they are everything but that. Universities thrive on research and publication, and that is what both the BG and STG are used for. On a campus that has produced copious cutting-edge and policy-relevant research on crime, violence, management, labour, history, and reparations, and myriad others, it is at best disingenuous for a university to be telling its staff to ‘align’ to regional and national goals via our research and then disarm the researchers.

Brown and his executive are not trying to protect their ‘privileges’. They are trying to preserve the relevance of the very institution from which most, but not all, of its major players have graduated. In fact, one would be surprised that UWI Mona academics earn 70 per cent of the salary of their counterparts at Cave Hill in Barbados.

The elephant in the room is a catch word: ‘transparency’. Brown and the WIGUT team are not unreasonable ogres. They understand the concept of ‘decent work’ and the research on employee engagement. Our own Labour Relations Code of 1976 is more than a thumbnail. It is binding before tribunals. One principle in the code is good-faith negotiation. “The parties should aim to meet all reasonable requests for information which is relevant to the negotiation in hand, and in particular, management should make available information which is supplied to their shareholders or published in annual reports.”

Financial Accountability

True, The UWI is not a corporation, but with a highly respected, successful businessman now as the chancellor, the notion of financial accountability and transparency must be paramount. After all, if the workers are being asked to bend over backwards, then ‘good faith’ labour practices must be evident. Simply put, the workers need to know how come the brightest of minds in the Anglophone Caribbean got us into this predicament. More important, especially since we are spending some of the government’s money, we must be able to say where we went wrong and guarantee to the sacrificant workers that under the current leadership, it is not likely to recur. This is what the research and practice say, and this is what we teach in our economically viable industrial relations and human-resources programmes in both the Mona School of Business and Management and the Department of Sociology, Psychology, and Social Work.

In fact, if I may take tales into school, my RJRGLEANER household income has been cut so much that I have had to take sardine sandwiches to work and make lemonade. Yet the only grumbling was my stomach because even the ancillary staff were made aware of the earnings, expenditure, and investments of the company.

On another note, let me apologise to the country for pushing for reparations, the Caribbean Court of Justice, and the abolishment of knighthoods and Queen’s Counsels yet not noticing the emblem of the governor general all these years. Now you see why they do not take us seriously?

- Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of Sociology at The UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of ‘Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets’. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.