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PETER WICKHAM: Those pesky noisemakers


PETER WICKHAM

PETER WICKHAM: Those pesky noisemakers

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OVER THE COURSE of this week it appeared as though the two leading unions in this country had finally come to the realisation that the muscle they once flexed with devastating impact had not withered and died due to lack of use.

The public was therefore advised that in response to the issuance of a controversial “option form” the two leading unions had threatened industrial action and this form was withdrawn. Ironically, a similarly named document with an equally sinister intention was central to significant industrial action in 1991 and while that action did not achieve its objectives, it nonetheless shook the foundations of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) government.

If we take the opportunity to consider the two sets of circumstances (then and now), along with the relative strength of the DLP governments, several things become apparent, not least of which is the fact that these trade unions are taken less seriously by this Government and those of us who are governed. There are several perspectives on the reasons why this change has occurred, but most would agree that the unions have been the architects of their own demise since they have crafted our own perception of them as the proverbial “lame and toothless dog”.  This mythical animal, we are told, is noisy, but either cannot or will not bite.

On the side of the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW), there has been the spectacle of a Government which committed itself to retaining all workers in February and by December acted decisively to send home 3 000, yet this most blatant deception is yet to give rise to industrial action. Within that more general conversation were the specific aggravations such as the mysterious list of workers that the NUPW’s leadership promised would be “approved” and is yet to be received.

The BWU has been equally strange although in fairness their workers have thus far not been targeted as much. More recently the new general secretary committed members of their National Conservation Commission (NCC) division to a tribunal process which appears as dubious as the NUPW’s list. Here the BWU’s comfort with this tribunal seems odd for a union which a few short years ago rejected the idea of an industrial court.

Raise questions

The general problem here relates to two unions which seem anxious to trust the words and actions of an employer that has demonstrated that they should not be trusted. Ironically, the most recent NATION/CADRES poll demonstrated the extent to which the majority of us do not trust the Government, and the apparent willingness of the unions to trust their good intentions should raise questions about the union’s logic at best or its sanity at worst.

Trust aside, there is also the question of a perceived shift in industrial relations practices, which seem to run counter to the finer traditions of trade unionism here. I recall a conversation with Ambassador Robert Morris some years ago and he explained the BWU’s traditional opposition to industrial courts, tribunals, minimum wage legislation and the legislation of salaries. He explained (and I agreed) that unions thrive on the ability to negotiate the best deal for workers within the circumstances. In some instances this deal exists well beyond the basic minimum wage which employers often incorrectly see as a conclusion and not a starting point of wage negotiations. Similarly, the narrow legal confines on which an industrial court or tribunal proceeds ignores the more nuanced industrial relations environment which often defined a dismissal as “unfair”. It is, however, clear that the current crop of union membership is more comfortable with this new environment created by Government than they perhaps should be.

As in all things there will be consequences of this new attitude, and in a small society like this a union that wishes to be successful needs to understand that our perception of it impacts on its members and potential members. There will also be an impact on the perception of employers in both the private and public sector. As such, the BWU should not be surprised that the BL&P is moving with indecent haste to ”off-load” workers since that organisation was not asleep when Government dismissed 200 from the NCC without a fraction of the compensation the BL&P now intends to provide.

Similarly, the unions should not be surprised that this Government had the audacity to issue option forms to potential employees of the Barbados Revenue Authority (BRA) with an implicit assumption that older workers would be discriminated against. This is certainly not the first occasion that workers have been treated in a manner that leaves much to be desired. And if the other transgressions have been excused, then there are good grounds for the transgressors to believe that “this [noise] too will pass”. The future BRA employees should therefore have anticipated this treatment, which is consistent with that which was dealt to others like the waste haulers and teachers.

The rest of us should rest safe in the knowledge that our turn will also come since we live in a world where our willingness to take insults will ultimately inform the extent to which and frequency with which we are insulted.

Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and director of the Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).

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