A verbal battle of the highest order is developing between Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) over the ongoing industrial action at the ports of entry, with the union sending a less than subtle warning to Stuart that its members can vote him out of office.
Stuart yesterday accused the NUPW of attempting to blackmail Government into reversing a decision to revert the union’s president Akanni McDowall to a junior position in the public service from an acting senior post.
Immigration and customs officers represented by the union are on a go-slow at both ports of entry.
In breaking his silence on the row, the Prime Minister told journalists after completing a visit to St Bartholomew Primary School that Government was not about to lie down and play dead in the face of the perceived strong-arm approach by the union.
“Nowadays it seems as though the fashion is to institute industrial action first, then start discussions after. I suppose that the institution of industrial action is supposed to be a subtle or sometimes not too subtle form of blackmail of the employer, be that employer be the Government or an employer in the private sector.
“If the new approach to industrial relations in Barbados dictates that you institute industrial action and then talk rather than the other way around, we may have to go back to the drawing board to see whether the mechanisms we have in place for the management of our industrial relations are suited to this new culture,” Stuart said.
Acting Deputy General Secretary of the NUPW Delcia Burke hit back at Stuart today, describing his comment as one made in the heat of the moment, and cautioned Stuart not to try to interfere with the way the trade unions here conduct business.
In an interview with Barbados TODAY this afternoon, Burke sent a clear message to Stuart about who is responsible for the position he now holds, and to expect serious consequences if he tries anything untoward.
“I heard [what the Prime Minister said] and I would like to think that it was said in the heat of the moment. I think that the Prime Minister understands that the workers are the ones who would be responsible for him and his Cabinet being there. To my mind I think that would be a very dangerous thing to do, and I think that the backlash would be extremely severe,” a defiant Burke said.
She argued that the NUPW had not deviated from traditional trade union protocols, and contrary to the Prime Minister’s assertion, it had exhausted other options before resorting to industrial action.
“The NUPW would have engaged in talks with the Chief Personnel Officer. We were not satisfied with the response during the talks and we were not satisfied with the response since the talks. We have not had another opportunity to sit down and meet and it appears to us that the position with the Government is, ‘this is what we have done and we are not going to change’. The matter is a very simple one, which we know can be resolved in a very simple way.
“No trade union wants to be engaged in industrial action because it takes a lot out of you to put everything else aside to deal with the action that you might want to take. While the Prime Minister is saying that we are doing things the wrong way, we believe that they [the Personnel Administration Division] went about what they did the wrong way. Instead of getting out there and saying things that would inflame the workers, I believe that the onus is on them to meet with us in earnest so that we can have matter resolved amicably,” Burke said in reference to a statement last week by Chief Personnel Officer Gail Atkins confirming Government’s position that McDowall was not qualified for the post, but his replacement had the required qualification. The NUPW has argued otherwise.
The veteran trade unionist said the labour movement was cognizant of the impact the go-slow was having on business. However, she reiterated the NUPW’s resolve in the dispute.
“We are mindful of the impact and we are concerned about the impact but the NUPW has to do what it has to do to have the matter resolved. The private sector would have asked the unions to be mature and find another way to do things. I think what the private sector needs to also do is to ask the Government to be mature and sit down with unions and discuss the issue,” she stressed.