For whom the bell tolls?
Sometimes to see an issue in its true perspective, it is necessary to meticulously gather and piece together disjointed but relevant bits of information which are scattered all over the place, to finally come up with a complete picture, in much the same way that one would go about solving a jigsaw puzzle.
There seems to be value in using such an approach in trying to contextualize and understand Government’s decision last week to unceremoniously remove President of the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) Akanni McDowall from a senior acting position in the Ministry of Health, reverting him to his substantive entry-level post.
Calling the “sudden” move nothing short of victimization, the NUPW pointed out that Mr McDowall had been acting since June in the vacant position for which he is academically qualified. It also noted that he had previously acted for two years in another senior post and had received favourable performance reports.
The decision raises a number of questions when certain relevant facts are contextualized and examined. Ever since a mostly youthful executive, headed by McDowell, assumed the leadership of the NUPW a year and a half ago, tension has generally characterized the union’s relationship with the incumbent Democratic Labour Party (DLP) administration.
Elected against a backdrop where the NUPW was facing criticism from members who believed it was not being effective enough in representing their interests, given the concern about public sector job security following layoffs related to fiscal stabilization, the new leadership opted for a more militant approach to the conduct of industrial relations.
It took on the Barbados Investment and Development Corporation (BIDC) when this statutory body sent home a batch of workers who had either reached or passed the age of 60. It has also fiercely resisted Government’s attempt to integrate customs officers into the Barbados Revenue Authority. It is currently fighting what it sees as an attempt to privatize garbage collection services.
Almost from the get-go, the stance of the new NUPW leadership attracted the ire of Government. In one instance, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart accused the union of practising “choke and rob industrial relations” and being led by “fanatics armed with guns”. In another instance, he contemptuously described the union’s stance as “noises which have to be made” – a statement denounced by the union as “disrespectful and distasteful”.
Mr Stuart went further, however, in vowing that Government would move to protect the trade union movement. In what clearly can be interpreted as a threat, he said: “Any steps Government takes . . . will protect the trade union. The trade union movement has been too important to Barbados to be left to adventurers.” The statement raises an important question: whose role is it to protect the trade union movement? Doesn’t it rightly belongs to members as it has always been?
Trade unions are mass-based organizations accountable to their members, rather than any government. The exception, of course, was during the communist era when trade unions were controlled by the ruling party and government. In democratic countries, however, decisions related to the business of labour unions have always been put to the membership to decide at annual delegates’ conferences. Against this historical record, Mr Stuart obviously overstepped the boundary.
There is a well-known saying that there is more than one way to skin a cat. It is also an age-old tactic that anytime one wishes to destroy or undermine a movement, one targets and takes out the leader and the followers will scatter. By hitting him where it hurts, is this what is happening in the case of Mr McDowall, who has been the most visible face of the new NUPW leadership?
The question deserves an answer considering that elements linked to the DLP were accused of being the instigators of a no-confidence motion earlier this year that unsuccessfully sought to remove Mr McDowall from office. He survived after members came out, rallied to his cause and reaffirmed their confidence in his leadership.
Mr McDowall has been linked to the opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP). It is his constitutional right to be so affiliated if that is his choice. Given this perception and how politics is played in Barbados, could it be that the embattled DLP is seeing his actions as politically motivated? Sometimes an embattled state of mind causes persons to see enemies where none really exist.
At any rate, several well-known DLP affiliates have held prominent positions in both the NUPW and the Barbados Workers Union (BWU) over the years. To the best of our knowledge, they were never victimized by any government. If such consideration did influence the decision against Mr McDowall, it must be roundly condemned.
To remove the suspicion of victimization, Government owes the country an explanatio. If such treatment can be meted out to the leader of the largest public sector trade union, then any other person of lesser degree is fair game.