Immoral, wild and absurd were some of the fighting words used this morning by Minister of Tourism and International Transport Richard Sealy to described the approach of this island’s largest public sector trade union in its pay dispute with the Grantley Adams International Airport Inc (GAIA).
Sealy slammed the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) for failing to respond to a letter sent to it by the management of GAIA last Thursday, but staging a strike the following day.
“That kind of thing is beyond reprehensible,” the Minister said. He made reference to previous union leaders who he said were tough negotiators but, “you would never find that kind of
The NUPW staged a three-hour strike on Friday to press GAIA to pay a contested 3.5 per cent wage hike for 2011 and has threatened to intensify industrial action if its demands are not met.
The union contends that the company has been profitable over the last five years and can pay the disputed increase.
Sealy addressed the issue during a two-hour press conference at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre today, called to discuse the tourism sector’s performance last year and projections for this year, making it clear Government was “willing to meet, not negotiate” in order to resolve the dispute.
He also castigated the union’s handling of the row, stating that it had “jumped into protest action” without any basis in fact.
The Minister argued that the 3.5 per cent the workers were claiming was null and void since it was taken off the table at a meeting on December 28, 2010 chaired by Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, and subsequently confirmed in a letter signed by then NUPW General Secretary Dennis Clarke in January 2011.
“So here it is five years later . . . because of a few people presumably looking for a rock to stand on, they want to resurrect an issue that an intelligent general secretary that can write in a manner that you understand, actually signed a letter stating that they were taking the 3.5 per cent off the table. So it doesn’t really make sense,” Sealy added.
He also dismissed claims by the union that its members at the airport did not receive wage increases that were commensurate with what Government workers got in 2008 to 2010, contending that while public servants received a ten per cent rise for that period, GAIA workers received 14 per cent, comprising a seven per cent rise in the first year, three per cent in the second year and four per cent in the third year.
“So they got 14 per cent, whereas civil servants only got ten per cent. They were correct, they didn’t get what the civil servants got, they got more. I therefore would like to think they can respond to those things that are mentioned in the letter [sent by GAIA] and we can get past this issue of protest,” the Minister emphasized.
Sealy argued that the union’s argument for wage increases, based on the company’s profit margin, was flawed and that the NUPW should consider instead the broader economic picture.
He explained that while GAIA spent some of its earnings on projects like the resurfacing of the runway, the company’s set up made it impossible for it to lose money. The Minister cited as an example the fact that it was Government and not the airport authority that spends between $250 million to $300 million to attract airlines from which the company collects taxes.
“So it is theoretically impossible for GAIA Inc not to make money. That is why it is an absolute absurdity of colossal proportions to simply look at the bottom line of GAIA Inc and say that those workers, who by the way number 410 . . . 3,600 people work at the airport, but only 410 are employed by GAIA Inc – [should get a 3.5 per cent pay rise]. Of the 410, 135 are with the union [NUPW].”
Sealy argued that GAIA employees were not the only ones to be credited with the airport management company’s successes, adding that one had to also consider other sections such as air traffic control on which the company does not spent “one red cent”.
“So is it fair that the janitorial staff that are employed by GAIA Inc get a disproportionate increase to central Government janitorial staff who are at the same airport facility? It’s immoral. I would think that a trade union which is all about the collective element [and] solidarity . . . would be in unison with others at the facility. And the further absurdity, is there are other elements of airport operations that are controlled by the NUPW,” noted the Minister of Tourism.
When contacted this evening President of the NUPW Akanni McDowall hit back at the Minister, telling Barbados TODAY that Sealy’s description of the union’s approach was “disgusting, distasteful and out of place”. He added that the minister ought to take his own advice and seek a meeting with the union in order to get the true picture because he had been “grossly misled”.
He also revealed that the union and GAIA were scheduled to meet on Wednesday afternoon at 2 p.m. in an attempt to resolve the dispute.
Meanwhile, former Minister of International Transport George Hutson, who was at the centre of the dispute between the union and GAIA in 2010/2011, has told Barbados TODAY Government vetoed the agreement reached between the two sides in 2010 for a four per cent rise in 2010 and a further 3.5 per cent increase in 2011 because it would not have been fair to other workers.
A compromise was eventually reached in December 2010 when the Prime Minister agreed to instruct his Cabinet to pay the four per cent for 2010 and the union took the 3.5 per cent for 2011 off the table.
“I recalled the discussions that we had in respect to the salary adjustments we had for GAIA Inc. However, as you will recall at that time, the Government’s position was that we were asking the private sector and Barbadians in general to hold strain in terms of any adjustments in salary so it would not be fair to offer adjustments to other workers at the same time. That was our position at that time.
“Obviously circumstances have changed with the economy recording some minor growth and the country seems as though it is going to return to more prosperous economic times. I am not sure exactly what is the Cabinet’s position in terms of salary adjustments at this particular point in time. Certainly I think that was five to six years ago and the policy position was to hold strain in terms of remunerations,” said Hutson, a former Member of Parliament for former St James Central.
He added that had Government acceded to the union’s request it would have emboldened other workers to push
for pay rises.