NOT ALL BLACK AND WHITE: Poor representation by union
THE FACADE OF A PEACEFUL industrial relations environment at the Grantley Adams International Airport was recently shattered by a three-hour work stoppage that was instituted by the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW).
The union is claiming that the Grantley Adams International Airport Inc. (GAIA Inc.) owes the workers an increase of 3.5 per cent on their basic pay going back to January 2011.
GAIA Inc. denies the union’s claim and the matter has now been referred to the Chief Labour Officer. But how did the matter reached this point?
In October 2010 the NUPW and GAIA Inc. concluded negotiations for the two-year period January 1, 2010 to December 31, 2011. The parties settled on a pay increase of four per cent for 2010 and a further increase of 3.5 per cent which should have taken effect on January 1, 2011.
GAIA Inc. admitted in a full page media statement in the SUNDAY SUN of February 14, 2016 that an agreement was reached for an increase of 7.5 per cent over the two-year period. However, when the board of directors submitted the matter to the Cabinet for final approval, the Government instructed GAIA Inc. that there should be no increase in wages and salary for whatever reason.
It should be noted that submitting salary increases to the Government for approval is a statutory requirement for the Public Service and statutory boards.
But GAIA Inc. is a private company that is registered under the Companies Act and there should be no need to submit salary increases to Cabinet. Government is the sole shareholder of GAIA Inc., but that does not make the company a statutory board. In the normal scheme of things, the board of directors of a company is responsible and oversees the operations on behalf of the shareholders. The board does not revert to the shareholders to approve operational decisions of management.
If I am to rely on the media statement, referral to the Cabinet was the first mistake that set the sequence of unorthodox industrial relations procedures rolling. Thereafter, matters got worse; the NUPW, rather than behave like a trade union, went cap in hand to the Prime Minister.
From the documents in the public domain, the Prime Minister met with the parties to the agreement on December 28, 2010 and it was agreed that the 3.5 per cent for 2011 would be “taken off the table”.
Then by letter dated January 4, 2011, the general secretary of NUPW wrote to GAIA Inc. to inform them that the union met with the workers on January 3, and that they “agreed and accepted that there will be no increase for January 2011”. So far not one worker of GAIA Inc can be found that is even aware of the January 3 meeting.
If there were such an agreement by the workers, that agreement would then have to be referred to the union’s national council for approval. It would therefore have been impossible to summon a meeting of the national council in less than one day. It is, therefore, clear to me that the workers at GAIA Inc. had no role in taking the 3.5 per cent increase off the table. Their anger is understandable but in my view, it is misplaced because they were poorly represented by their union.
There was a collective agreement for an increase of 7.5 per cent over two years that should have been honoured since it was concluded with persons who had authority to bind GAIA Inc. At this point, many industrial practitioners would be saying that collective agreements are binding in honour only and that the workers had no legal claim to the increase. However in this case they would be wrong.
While it is true that collective agreements would not normally confer any legal rights on workers, in this case the workers acquired a legally enforceable claim to their new salaries because the employer implemented the agreement by paying back pay on December 28, 2010.
On the very day that the Prime Minister was meeting with the parties to the agreement, with a view to scuttling the pay increase, GAIA Inc. started to pay its workers under the terms of the new arrangements. There was therefore nothing on the table that could have been taken off.
GAIA Inc. might assert that it had an agreement with a person who had ostensible authority to bind the union. Mind you, that argument is liable to fail because having implemented the agreement to increase salaries, each and every worker at GAIA Inc. had a new term in their contracts that could not be altered without their individual consent.
If the company prevails, the workers would still be entitled to their increases from their union because it failed to give its members fair representation.
Caswell Franklyn is the general secretary of the Unity Workers Union and a social commentator. Email: [email protected]