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Oral Saunders

Public servants across T&T will cast their vote tomorrow in the Public Services Association (PSA) elections which has been delayed for three years. The polls were due to be held in 2017 but have been delayed by legal action over issues with the voters’ list and election rules.

A total of six teams will be contesting the elections, including the incumbent president, Watson Duke and more than 12,000 of the union’s members are eligible to vote. The entire process has been overshadowed by allegations of voter fraud, misappropriation and misbehaviour and legal action prevented the elections from taking place on November 23 as originally planned.

Guardian Media got an opportunity to sit with former member of the PSA executive, Oral Saunders, to find out why he wants to lead the 83-year-old organisation.

Saunders served as General Secretary in the Watson Duke-led executive in 2010.

Q Mr Saunders, is there really going to be an election in the PSA on Monday December 14th?

A: “Thank God public officers are finally going to exercise their democratic right to choose a new executive, so the answer is yes.”

You have been around the PSA for a long time. Do you think public servants are pleased with the PSA?

“I think my fellow public officers are disappointed in the general downward spiral and collision path the PSA has been on and they are crying out for change.”

Do they really want change or do they want more money?

“I think we deserve both but let me place your question in the proper context. Our union has become, or is perceived as a partisan political party opposed to the government of the day. PSA must always be apolitical and an authentic voice of our members, not of the president. Currently public officers are working on 2013 salaries and once again we are being asked to endure the austerity measures that the current economic environment presents.”

But Mr Saunders you all still have jobs while so many people have lost theirs.

“I agree we have remained employed during this pandemic, but as a nation we must accept or better yet place a value on the said jobs and sacrifices that public officers perform on a daily basis. During our country’s darkest moments of 1970, the ’80s, 1990 and now 2020, public officers have always ensured that our country prevails.”

Mr Saunders, why then are there so many complaints from ‘John Public’ about public servants?

“I believe the answer to that question is multifaceted. In the psyche of the citizenry public officers are seen as well paid beneficiaries of the country’s resources, working under ideal conditions, etc. Our reality is in many instances the complete opposite. As we speak there are offices without ink for the photocopy machine, persons employed in excess of 12 and 14 years temporarily employed, some are on a month-to-month contract, acting for years without being appointed and I could go on. There will always be room for improvement but on both sides and that is the importance of the PSA.”

How will the PSA improve under your leadership?

“Our members can look forward to a politically-independent president focused on our member’s needs. My 24 years of industrial relations and union experience will ensure that our union is united, structured, relevant, educated and skilled to respond to today’s challenges. Our mission is to restore, rebuild and to revive the PSA.”

What will be your priorities going forward?

“Job security especially for WASA and BIR/Customs and Excise workers and concluding negotiations for the outstanding collective agreements. Our team, the United Public Officers, is the only credible team capable of uniting the entire public service, WASA and Tobago.”

We have heard so many stories over the years about the finances of the union. What is your intent in this regard?

“I intend to adhere to the constitution of the PSA, which requires accountability and transparency. In every rumour there is an element of truth. It is against this background and for the safety and reputation of my executive we shall conduct an independent audit of the PSA’s finances.”

Mr Saunders there are so many of you in this race. What sets you apart from your competitors?

“My consistency and commitment to trade unionism and my love for the PSA. I began as an ordinary member and I have served at every level from the ground up over my 24 years as a member. This has been an 11-year-old struggle to return our union to some semblance of functionality and good governance for me. This battle is not of recent vintage like those actors. I have been publicly ridiculed and expelled by my union for speaking the truth and demanding accountability. I have never given up on the dream to unite WASA, Tobago and the entire public service.”

The incumbent is also well known and very active on the national scene. How do you address that issue?

“I believe that Comrade Duke is a very distracted president. He has always been busy building his own personal brand at the expense of the union. The PSA and trade unions have never been about a part but the whole. Our members need to feel the best value in being a member as opposed to a non member. We must never confuse activity with productivity. That trust that was broken with the acceptance of the five per cent must be restored. As president that will be my responsibility.”

In that regard will you be able to manage the expectations for increases in salaries?

“Public officers have always been very tolerant and knowledgeable of our country’s economic situation. The incumbents have a 120.4 per cent salary demand before the Government. This is unrealistic, unattainable and may result in retrenchment. We will approach the negotiations without a political agenda and a genuine desire to obtain the best for all public servants.”

Are you ready to be the President of the PSA now?

“I truly believe that I am. I have served our union during the good and the bad, over 24 years in various capacities. I am honoured to lead a very diverse, educated and committed group of fellow public officers who have a plan to rebuild revive and restore our union. Our vision is to move our union’s modus operandi away from the 1939 model into 2020 and the future with the use of education and technology. Most importantly is my desire to lead by example internalising that my behaviour impacts directly on the entire public service and our country.”