Lessons for young McDowall
New NUPW head 'committed' to public workers
“I told my members to make sure that no fool was elected on that day, and they did just that. They made sure that I was elected along with my team.”
Such was Akanni McDowall’s reflection on the election of a new executive of the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) on April 1, in which he was voted president.
But any expectation he may have had of a honeymoon period was not to be, as just three months in the post he found himself, as head of the union, embroiled in a dispute with the Barbados Investment & Development Corporation (BIDC) over the forced retirement of ten BIDC employees over age 60 –– that would culminate in a protest march and industrial action by some sections of the Public Service.
“I expected that there would be issues. I didn’t expect that it would have to escalate to this level. I mean, we haven’t had a protest action in 25 years, and this was the first action that the NUPW ever led in the history of the NUPW, as far as I know,” he told Barbados TODAY.
“However, I think we did a fantastic job. I think we went out there, and by ‘we’ I’m talking about the team –– my new executive and the secretariat, along with all the workers who would have supported us. We made sure we made a . . . statement that the trade union movement is still very much alive and the rights of workers are protected, and workers still have a voice in Barbados.”
McDowall said although he was familiar with the issues faced by the trade union before he took up the post, the issue surrounding the BIDC workers had taken him by surprise, as did “the action taken in relation to the Customs officers” –– the distribution of option forms by management asking workers to indicate their willingness to be transferred to the Barbados Revenue Authority.
“Those are the things that I would never have had an opportunity to see under the past president,” he said.
McDowall disclosed that the union’s dispute with the BIDC had made him more aware of the magnitude of the task at hand.
“It has made me rethink how things are supposed to be done, and it has shown me that the job that I have is a really responsible one, and you have to be careful about every single decision that you take, even talking to the media. You have to make sure that what you say is what you mean.
“It also showed me that you can’t really do things on your own. Although you might have a position, you still need to listen to the people around you. You know they have a voice and they sometimes can put you on the right path.
“I would have also received a lot of advice –– some good, some bad –– which showed me too that you have to listen to everybody, listen to all the advice that is given, and then sit down quietly and determine what advice is good and what advice is bad,” he said.
When McDowall, a former health promotion officer in the Ministry of Health, succeeded veteran trade unionist Walter Maloney as head of the island’s largest public sector trade union, he said his priorities included fighting for public servants who had been awaiting appointments for several years, as well as improving working conditions in the Civil Service. It’s a pledge he says he intends to live up to during his term in office.
“Akanni McDowall is a very happy fella, a joke here or there; but once it comes to the business of the people, I’m a very serious person. They can expect a person who is committed to fight tooth and nail for the workers in Barbados.”
But the Government has taken the union to task over its handling of the dispute, with Prime Minister Freundel Stuart accusing them of “bullying and blackmail tactics”. But McDowall has dismissed the comments, saying he will not allow them to affect the NUPW’s relationship with the Government.
“I would prefer not to respond to the Prime Minister. Sometimes these things happen, but I would prefer not to respond to him. I have no problems personally with the Prime Minister of Barbados. If he has to ask me for a meeting today, I will definitely go. And that goes for any minister of the Government,” said McDowall.
His actions in the past couple weeks have been heavily criticized in some quarters as being politically motivated, but McDowall told Barbados TODAY he was not fazed by his critics.
“I would say that if the Barbados Labour Party were in power, and I did what I had to do, they would say that I was a Democratic Labour Party supporter . . . .
“I don’t really have any interest in politics at this time. I’m just really about the trade union movement and I’m concerned about the workers of this country.
“I just want to make sure that the rights of the workers are maintained; and that is my main concern. What they say about me politically is neither here nor there.”
Despite McDowall’s talk of standing up for workers’ rights, the NUPW’s sincerity has been called into question in light of its apparent inaction following the retrenchment of 3,000 public sector workers last year.
“We acknowledge and we recognize that in the past year we have not handled things in the best way that we could have, in terms of the 3,000 people who were retrenched and the case which is now before the tribunal. And therefore we have made a commitment among ourselves to make sure that whatever we do, the workers will have confidence in the movement,” McDowall said.
He added that the NUPW and other trade unions would continue to work in the interests of all public workers.
“They can expect, going forward, the best representation possible. The Barbados Workers’ Union has been central in this whole process, and they have also committed to making sure that they give the workers the best possible representation.
“And not only the Barbados Workers’ Union. All of the other trade unions . . . have committed to giving the workers the best representation,” he said.