EDITORIAL: Meetings must be resumed!
Suddenly, almost out of the blue, this country seems to be mired in deep industrial relations conflict, with workers in both the public and private sectors dissatisfied with decisions taken by their employers.
The nature of this development has caused Barbadians to pause and consider what has gone so grievously wrong that incidents which could normally be solved at the level of the workplace have escalated, still unsolved, onto the national scene.
Even more alarming is the probability that one or both of these incidents could evolve into national strike action which would have the effect of further damaging our already bruised and battered economy.
The Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union had been complaining for some time about the principal at Alexandra School, but the decision to transfer him and about 20 of the teachers there and scatter them throughout the school system seems to be one which caught them, and many others, by surprise.
If it had been more carefully thought out, the same decision might have been accomplished with less fanfare and greater acceptability if it had been done at the end of the school year rather than in the middle, when it seemed to ignore the lesson about changing horses in midstream.
When accusations, founded or unfounded, about decisions smacking of “vindictiveness” and being of a punitive nature (Alexandra) or about “reprehensible” action (telecommunications company Lime) are hurled into the mix, matters have reached a far point from the voluntaristic nature of our history in solving industrial disputes.
The LIME dispute seems to have evolved at lightning speed compared with the Alexandra School affair. One day we heard that 97 workers were being made redundant, and within another few days talks with the Barbados Workers’ Union had broken down and the union was seeking authority from its highest decision-making body to call a national strike.
The strike has traditionally been the final weapon used by the workers and their representatives and it is more than a little disconcerting that its ugly head appears to have been raised in both these disputes when, as it seems to us, the avenues for further discussion have not been exhausted.
In the Alexandra affair, the Minister of Education and the Prime Minister have both spoken about discussion to resolve any difficulties caused by the transfers and this seems to be something of a concealed opening for further steps to resolve this stand-off. We would urge the parties to resume official talks as soon as possible rather than attempt to talk to each other from the distance of the airwaves.
As regards the LIME escalation, it seems from published reports that both sides were deep into amicable discussions about industrial relations issues and that some measure of tentative agreement had been reached with further scheduled discussions to take place on January 2. The notices of dismissal came before that reconvened meeting and if this is the case, then the union’s sense of grievance and irritation is perhaps justified; but still some effort must be made to get back to the stage immediately before the matter exploded.
The company is undergoing restructuring and the easiest way to handle such issues is to have the union, as the workers’ representative, engaged in a constructive manner in dialogue aimed at reaching workable solutions. Here again, verbal warfare across the airwaves will not help.
The consequences of industrial action on either front, or on both, are not in the national interest. While we recognize that the sectoral interests involved have to be defended, it seems to us that the resumption of talks in both cases can produce workable solutions in which the protection of all the sectoral interests involved will be respected and secured, and damage to the national interest may be averted.
In these types of situations, rational discussion and reasonable compromise have worked before. They can work again, but the meetings must be resumed!