BWU + LIME = sour mix
It is often quite difficult to comment fairly on any matter when one is not in possession of the facts, all the facts.
Given the nature of life today, however, seldom will one be seized of all the facts, given the colour that can be ascribed to information and the capacity of players to effectively bend them to suit their purposes.
It is possible, though, to look at issues from a general perspective and arrive at some reasonable conclusions. In the case of the impasse now existing between telecommunications giant LIME and the island’s most powerful trade union, the Barbados Workers Union, it is clear that the current positions of both sides do not relate solely to the issues now being debated. LIME and the BWU have a history that has been too often characterised by mistrust.
When matters reached the boiling point earlier this week with the union’s General Secretary, Senator Sir Roy Trotman, threatening island-wide industrial action if LIME did not return to the bargaining table, to many outsiders it appeared the two sides were talking at cross purposes.
Even before the breakdown occurred, it would not have taken the average Barbadian long to see it coming. After all, LIME was telling the public they were not ready to meet under the chairmanship of Minister of Labour Dr. Esther Byer-Suckoo to discuss job evaluations; while BWU was stressing the withdrawal of termination letters to 97 employees.
From our perspective, talks are bound to fail when two sides sit at the table with different agendas — literally.
The Barbados Workers Union is no fly-by-night organisation. It has fought hard for and earned the respect of Barbadians. Its leader, a veteran in the trade union movement locally, regionally and internationally is not one to be trifled with. As an institution, the BWU has represented Barbados and its members well for decades.
LIME, a Barbadian fixture for over a century — by various names — is not to be disregarded either. For decades its standards in telecommunications and human resources development have been the envy of many neighbours; and its success in keeping Barbados well ahead of the regional competition has served us all well.
It is true that its more recent history has not always taken a course that is endearing to its customers or bringing significant segments of the population to its side of the table; but like the BWU, LIME cannot be disregarded.
Both institutions have been, and continue to be, the subject of pressure brought on by societal shifts, which no doubt are playing a role in the current impasse. The BWU is not the all-powerful institution it once was — and not necessarily through any fault of its own. As the economy has changed, so too has it power bases, and as the world, and Barbados, move farther away from the massive labour enclaves like the sugar industry and the Bridgetown Port, and more toward entrepreneurship, the power of trade unions will continue to diminish.
By the same token, the technology that gave rise to the LIMEs of this world is the same technology that is killing them. The rooms of super computers, over-awing circuitry, massive satellite dishes, supported by huge work forces, and all the other symbols of power of the communications giants of the past are now just that — the past.
Many people in business today still look on in amazement at the civil service-type bureacracy that characterises LIME’s operations, and wonder how they continue to survive in the face of competition that is so much more nimble and cost efficient.
In all fairness, one does not have to attend business school to understand LIME has to change, and change dramatically and expeditiously if it wants to survive. This is by no means an endorsement of any method of change that might have infuriated the BWU, just a simple recognition that they must have recognised by now that they could not survive with business as usual.
But LIME also has another huge problem — public relations. In our estimation, over the past two decades the telecoms company has failed miserably in all attempts to communicate to its customers and the country the relationship between its continuous shedding of labour while recording huge profits.
Given that telecommunications technology and development clearly needs to be fed continuously with massive research and development and upgrade budgets so as not to be left behind, one takes it for granted that a company of the nature of LIME must plough back into its operations a significant percentage of the money it makes. But what’s the actual picture? How has LIME been painting it for the public?
LIME needs to change and the BWU needs to flex muscle — ingredients for the perfect storm.