His name dominated 2016 reports on the Barbados industrial relations scene, so it was fitting, as the island exits the year, that Akanni McDowall led airport workers into a mammoth wages victory.
To say it was a trying year for the leader of the National Union of Public Workers would be an understatement, as a reflection on 2016 shows him embroiled in not only matters of workers representation, for which he was elected the previous year, but also fighting to protect his position from two palace coup attempts, then being in the unusual role of the person whose public service job the union was forced to defend.
In spite of the dominance of McDowall’s struggles and successes in 2016, there was however another major industrial tango with the Freundel Stuart administration that saw the soft-spoken Barbados Workers Union boss smack Government for its negotiation stalling tactics on delivery on a wages agreement for Water Authority workers.
In an exhibition of woman power, Toni Moore called out her union members at the ports, and with the prospect of a national shut down, Government caved in and found the money to begin payment.
That was the story of labour in 2016 – two young people, relatively recently appointed to union leadership, displaying the mettle needed to take Barbados back to the glorious days of unionism when workers solidarity charted the course for the Barbados of now.
Barbados TODAY Monday night broke the news of McDowall’s NUPW clinching a 2015-2017 pay deal for Grantley Adams International Airport workers, bringing to an end a year-long highly charged negotiations process that at times almost shut down the island’s only point of entry for aircraft.
The estimated 400 workers should now be receiving their seven per cent back-pay, and happily looking to 2017 when they are in line for another pay rise upon successful completion of public service salary negotiations.
But amidst media images of McDowall leading airport workers in protest marches during the year, the 35-year-old endured two attempts to throw him out of the union leadership position through votes of no confidence, led by disaffected NUPW executive members.
The first attempt in May failed because the palace coup organizers did not garner the constitutionally required number of signatories for the overthrow.
Undaunted, the NUPW palace dwellers made a second attempt in June with a charge that he breached protocol in seeking to engage Sagicor with regard to the NUPW’s Medicare plan.
Riding on 168 votes in his favour, 45 against, and seven abstentions, McDowall crushed that coup attempt.
But the young man’s worries at a personal level were not over for 2016 as in October he was without notice, moved from his public service job as an Acting Health Planning Officer 1, back to his substantive post of Environmental Health Assistant, with no explanation given.
The union cried foul, stating that the “sudden reversion of its president” was nothing short of victimization, while pointing out that he had recently been vocal in his opposition to what the union saw as Government’s efforts to privatize the state-run Sanitation Service Authority.
“He has also been forthright in his representation of customs officers, GAIA Inc and BIDC employees among others,” the union statement added.
Salt was rubbed into the wound when a person junior to McDowall was placed in the acting position.
Two of the island’s labour organizations, the BWU and the Unity Workers Union, openly declared their solidarity with McDowall and the NUPW. The two teachers’ union also made clear that they were with him.
There followed the grandstanding that usually occurs between labour and a major employee, some go-slow among airport workers, and the possibility of an all-out strike around the time of the islands Golden Jubilee celebrations.
NUPW, with the support of sister unions, held its stance and at the end of the first week in December there emerged word of a victory of sorts. Government agreed to pay the union leader for the full period of the initial acting appointment, though he had been reverted to his substantial post with about two months left in the appointed period.
There were not qualifying terms, however, to describe BWU’s Toni Moore’s slamming of Government in the demand for long due back pay for Water Authority workers.
In mid-March. BWU called out its members are the BWA to the picket line, protesting the non-payment of $33 million in increments due to 830 workers.
From the beginning of this protest that lasted over a week, Moore had been saying that the action had more to do with “disrespect’’ shown by the BWA management, who she charged had failed to meet a number of agreed deadlines.
“While the subject of discussion over a ten-year period has been about increments, the action taken by the Executive Council of the union relates less to increments . . . [and] more to disrespect shown by the BWA and its continued insistence on dishonouring agreements which it made over time,” Moore said after emerging from a meeting with Minister of Labour Dr Esther Byer-Suckoo, who had been mediating between the union and Minister of Water Resource Management Dr David Estwick.
But six days after the picket line protests and talks with Government yielded no positive results, Moore called out all of BWU public sector union branches and condemned the BWA management for “arrogance” in not even apologizing for failing to meet the March 10 deadline to give information on how it would begin paying the outstanding increments.
“This arrogance will not be tolerated,” she said.
The labour leader proceeded to call out her workers at the airport and sea port, virtually crippling the island, forcing Government into some six hours of talks on the same day, with hastily conjured pay proposals to end the dispute and put in the hands of workers, money that was due for a decade.
“We are happy that at the end of that meeting we can report that we have reached an agreement which we are sure will satisfy our constituents. Increments will be honoured as the union had requested and as was agreed with the parties previously,” Moore said on the evening of March 25, in the foyer of Government Headquarters on Bay Street at the end of the marathon talks.
Another prolonged labour issue, this time involving 200 laid-off National Conservation Commission (NCC) workers ended in October, with the severed workers receiving their cash settlements, three months after the Employment Rights Tribunal had ruled that retrenched were unfairly dismissed in 2014 as part of Government’s cost-cutting measures, and had ordered compensation equivalent to 52 weeks’ wages.