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Opinions of Friday, 20 August 2021

Columnist: Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Abbey-Quaye

Emmanuel Abbey-Quaye's take on government-UTAG impasse

UTAG will continue to remain resolute on their stance UTAG will continue to remain resolute on their stance

The raging impasse between the University Teachers’ Association of Ghana (UTAG) and the Government of Ghana is another stark reminder of one of the many things that we in Ghana have become all too familiar with, namely, the frequent use of strike actions by various labour unions to drum home their demands for better conditions of service from Governments.

One justification often given for strike actions by labour unions in Ghana over the years is that strike actions are the most effective ways to get labour demands satisfied, and it is the language that the Government understands best. Consequently, strike actions have become part and parcel of the labour union landscape in Ghana, a useful bargaining chip in dealing with the Government and or its agencies.

As a result of this, we have all inevitably come to accept industrial actions as normal occurrences in Ghana and thereby failing to take into account the cost that such actions have had and continue to have on Ghana’s international image, development, and productivity.

The Current Government-UTAG Impasse

In specific reference to the ongoing Government of Ghana and UTAG impasse, for which reason Ghana’s public university lecturers are currently on strike, what we know so far is that the leadership of UTAG is requesting that Government meets their demands for better conditions of service for members which have been pending since 2012 because these demands can no longer wait after many failed negotiations in the past.

Thus, even though a court order obtained by the National Labour Commission has ordered the Association to call off their industrial action and return to the lecture rooms and the negotiation table with Government, UTAG continues to defy this order to call off their strike action.

Over the past few weeks, Prof. Ransford E. Gyampo, the current National Secretary of UTAG, has spoken extensively on this impasse on several media platforms, arguing that UTAG believes that now is the most opportune time to get Government to finally fulfil their demands and that they have resolved not to back down until these demands are fully met.

According to him, members of UTAG will continue to remain resolute on their stance and that the Government can even decide to sack all the lecturers and take their salaries, they will still not return to the classrooms. In various other interviews, Prof. Gyampo has also insisted that since lecturers do not eat meetings and negotiations, the Government should do the needful by meeting their demands, else their strike action will continue unabated.

According to him, he has personally asked the President to intervene to resolve this impasse because “the buck stops with him”. Just a few days ago, in another interview on Joy FM, Prof. Gyampo stated among others that their strike action will not result in the death of students unlike what happens when doctors and nurses embark on strikes and that the academic calendar can always be adjusted for students to carry out their studies and complete their courses. Therefore, all university students should exercise patience and wait “small” for them until they are able to return to the classrooms.

My Take on the Ongoing Impasse

As far as the Constitution of Ghana and the laws governing Government and labor relations go, I think that it is well within the rights of UTAG members to embark on the strike action which they have done. Therefore, nobody can or should begrudge them for that. Besides, some of these strike actions in the past have yielded dividends, and there is every prospect that they can do the same now. In a similar way, I also think that it is within the rights of the institutions that are set up to deal with issues of this nature, including the NLC and the courts, to do their work. Therefore, UTAG must allow these institutions also to do their work and discredit or lampoon them.

I have taken into consideration the circumstances surrounding the ongoing impasse and decided not to give any extensive comments on what Professor Gyampo, in particular, has had to say so far on the UTAG industrial action and rather to leave judgment to the good people of Ghana, especially those who have listened to him on this issue thus far. Nonetheless, I would like to make two remarks here.

One, I think that Prof. Gyampo ought to be mindful always that by virtue of the position that he now occupies as the National Secretary of UTAG, his utterances and position carry considerable weight since they invariably reflect the position of the entirety of UTAG. Therefore, I think that as much as practicable, he should learn to separate his personal opinions as a social commentator from those of UTAG as an Association in addressing this issue in the days ahead.

Two, I also think that in his commentaries and general approach to the issue at stake, Prof. Gyampo should learn to refrain from speaking in ways that do not help in any way in advancing the cause of resolving the problem at hand. His statement to the effect that UTAG will not respect the court’s order and directive to return to the negotiations room does not augur well for the rule of law in Ghana.

At the same time, I think that his comments to the effect of the sacking of lecturers and taking their salaries and on the fact that students will not die from the lecturers’ strike action to justify their continuous absence from the classroom is, to say the least very sad and disappointing because these comments in no way justify the continuous strike action of UTAG or contribute in any way towards the speedy resolution of the raging impasse. Therefore, I think that Prof. Gyampo needs to be encouraged to tone down a bit on his rhetoric and refrain from making further statements that do not provide a way forward for resolving the impasse at hand.

Beyond these remarks, I posit that the real victims, namely, the students and their parents and guardians, are being forgotten in this whole saga. The good adage that says that “when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers” goes true for all these students and their parents and guardians who have become the silent, forgotten victims in the ongoing drama as their interests are being sacrificed on the altar of political and academic expediency by our Government and UTAG.

Having struggled to pay their fees and offered themselves for teaching and learning, the least our students can expect from their universities is an academic environment conducive for learning on the various university campuses so that lecturers can teach them and they can study without needless interruptions to finish their courses on time and graduate to either further their studies or look for employment opportunities.

But here they are, faced once again with anxiety, uncertainty, and frustration associated with these strike actions without any knowledge of what the future has in store for them since their fate is not in their own hands again but in those of the powers that be. Their situation is sad and unfortunate, but it is the reality.

Conclusion: On the Way Forward

In the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, no one can underestimate the pain, distress, and frustrations that most people are going through and the efforts people are making to put their lives back together, and this also goes also for students and their parents.

I think that it will be very sad and unfortunate if this strike action also adds to the anxiety and distress that our students and parents, like everybody else, are already going through. Therefore, I pray that both the Government and UTAG will do everything humanly possible to try and resolve this impasse.

As soon as practicable, negotiations and dialogue should resume in which Government and UTAG and other relevant stakeholders will consider not only their own interests but also those of our students and academic work in Ghana in general.

As negotiations and dialogue resume, I pray and hope that all who have a stake in resolving this impasse will refrain from postures and commentaries, which will not help in any way to bring a speedy resolution to this matter. I further pray that in this and other issues of national concern, the interests of Ghana will always reign supreme.