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Industrial unrest

“The only way there will not be a strike is if the employers in Barbados tell the company [LIME] that what they are doing is madness.” – Sir Roy earlier this week while responding to a question from a member of the media about the threatened nation-wide strike action.

Regrettably 2013 was greeted with a tense industrial relations climate as the Barbados Secondary Teachers Union and the Barbados Workers Union initiated limited industrial action while threatening an escalation of strike action unless their demands are met.

On the basis of what has been reported publicly, both unions appear to be on the wrong side of the respective issues at this point in time. Rather than being seen as defenders of the rights and wellbeing of workers, they have been perceived as petulant actors guilty of perpetrating an unflattering attitude of egocentricity.

Trade unions have made an outstanding contribution to Barbados’ development but recently some of them have been too eager to put the narrow interests of their constituents above the welfare of the society. This marks a very worrying trend.

The BSTU’s reaction to the Ministry of Education’s transfer of a number of teachers pursuant to the recommendations of the Waterman Commission is yet another deplorable episode in the Alexandra affair. It sets a poor example. It would appear that the BSTU is in a state of blissful denial of the role of some of their members in contributing to the sordid mess created at the St. Peter school.

Even more reprehensible than the shirking of responsibility is the obstructionist endeavour to escape being part of the solution though its members in one way or another were part of the problem (In my estimation Jeff Brooms is also guilty).

I can concede that the timing and implementation of the transfers were less than ideal but it is time to put this matter behind us and get on with educating the nation’s children and creating an educational environment that is both harmonious and conducive to nurturing the talent and aspirations of the students. The teething issues regarding timing and execution can easily be resolved. Enough is enough.

The BSTU ought to explore the art of cooperation and collaboration and abandon their penchant for confrontation.

In defence of the BWU’s threatened national strike, University of the West Indies political scientist, Dr. Tennyson Joseph, wrote in a column in another section of the press that: “In the case of the BWU struggle [with LIME], the employer’s response is a reaction, not to a perceived internal split in the union, but the consequence of arrogance on the part of a young, neo-liberal managerial elite, trained to place the ‘bottom line’ over human need.”

Joseph, guided by an ideological philosophy, spouted a lot of other drivel in his column, including a suggestion that a national strike is not unreasonable and “Sir Roy is correct in thinking that a point has to be made”. What exactly is the point?

I reject out of hand the goodly gentleman’s notions condoning the BWU’s proposition of a national strike, and I am no neo-liberal. Such action could only be characterised as heavy handed and disproportionate to the grievances outlined by the union boss. Moreover, in the circumstances the country can ill afford the adversity of a national strike.

On what planet could employers in Barbados be deemed collectively responsible for a dispute between LIME and the BWU, especially in circumstances where LIME offered the 97 terminated employees a compensation package in excess of the statutory requirements, including an offer to own and operate their retail outlets?

Is the BWU attempting to flex its muscles for no other reason but to convince itself and its members that it is still relevant in the 21st century? The survival of trade unions in Barbados will depend on their ability to reinvent themselves and evolve in order to offer constructive solutions to the challenges arising in the 21st century while continuing to be an instrument of development and a catalyst of the legitimate aspirations of labour. These temper tantrums and petty, contrived provocations are becoming tired and bordering on being a national nuisance. Take my humble advice Sir Roy; reassess the role of the union in a modern Barbados. Lately, you have been running the risk of reducing a great institution into nothing more than a footnote in the next chapter of Barbados’ economic and social development. New circumstances and emerging sophisticated challenges require new approaches and more reasoned action and deliberation.

The fact that the intervention of the Prime Minister in the LIME-BWU dispute and the Chief Personnel Office’s acquiescence to have a meeting with the BSTU have forestalled needless, disruptive strike action, augurs well. Nevertheless, the time has come for Barbados to consider giving legal effect to a labour relations arbitrator with the legitimacy to act as the final arbiter on industrial relations disputes. I have never been a fan of the practice of requiring a Prime Minister to resolve such disputes. What happens if the dispute centres on a policy of the Government that inflames the passions of the National Union of Public Workers?

* Carlos R. Forte is a Commonwealth Scholar and Barbadian economist with local and international experience.

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