EDITORIAL: Ease the tension, please
OUR COUNTRY is apparently entering a new phase of tension and mistrust between “labour” and “capital” in the public sector, and it is time for those in charge to nip it in the bud.
Currently we have multiple disputes between the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) and the Government, the most recent surrounding the “reversion” of NUPW’s president Akanni McDowall to his substantive job in the Ministry of Heath, which has resulted in a go-slow that looks set to escalate.
Among others, there is the long-standing matter of customs officers being shifted to the Barbados Revenue Authority.
The Barbados Union of Teachers is hopping mad over the decision of Government earlier this year to dock the pay the teachers who attended two meetings of the union during school hours early in the second quarter of the year. The union has told Government if the money is not returned to the teachers in their next pay packet it could expect a strong response.
At the same time, the Barbados Secondary Teachers Union has served notice that unless there is action on 400 outstanding teacher appointments it will use its muscle to force Government’s hand.
But after calling out teachers to a meeting during school hours two days ago, it also sounded a warning that if the ministry makes the mistake of docking the pay of its members who attended, as it did earlier in the year with the BUT, it will “react accordingly”.
Signs of the heightened tense relations between the two sides can also be seen in the contention of the union that it was only its agitation that caused the closure of the Combermere School after dozens of teachers and students repeatedly fell ill while on the campus.
On top of all this has been the clear indication from the most powerful union of them all, the Barbados Workers Union, that it is standing behind the NUPW over the decision of Government to return president McDowall to his junior level post in the public service.
What makes this all the more bothersome and laced with potential for further social disruption is the fact that Government and the unions are about to get into serious negotiations about a new wages and salaries contract for public officers in an environment where the Government has made it clear its finances continue to be challenged, while the unions have stressed that the pay freeze must end.
While it is possible to isolate each dispute and treat it as a separate matter, it would be imprudent of those in charge not to recognise and act on the clear indication that there is an underlying unease. Trust between unions and the Government is at an all-time low, at a time when Barbadians are complaining about a myriad of social failings. It would not be an exaggeration to see the current situation as a powder keg that’s just waiting to be lit.
It’s time to dial back on the rhetoric all around. It certainly did not help that the Ministry of Education labelled the unions’ calling of teachers to meet as industrial action, that the Prime Minister criticised the union and Minister of Commerce Donville Inniss called the NUPW “reckless and irresponsible” – all publicly and with a 24-hour period.
If the larger aim was to reduce tension as a first step towards finding solutions and lessening the probability of a national conflagration of industrial action, then restraint would have been a much more prudent course of action.
Prime Minister Freundel Stuart is also the Minister responsible for the Civil Service and it is therefore incumbent on him at this stage to take the lead role in returning some sobriety to the situation. It’s time to do the right thing. Taking positions based on political postering will only lead to dislocation and disruption when everyone is in no doubt that it is the one thing the country can’t afford at this time.