Unfit or not, suitably qualified or not to lead, trade unionist Akanni McDowall certainly held the Freundel Stuart administration by its cojones in 2016, as he courageously fought to restore confidence in a seemingly dying trade union movement.
But even with its back against the wall, Government was not about to cede power to any trade union, much less one that was being led by a 36-year-old neophyte, who had only been elected a year ago and could never walk in, much less fill the shoes of a Dennis Clarke, Sir Roy Trotman or Sir Frank Walcott – or so they thought.
However, Government would soon learn the hard way where the real fire power within the trade union movement ultimately rests; so too a Government-aligned faction within his National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) itself, which would openly seek to challenge McDowall’s leadership of the union.
The internal challenge would take the form of a no-confidence motion, led by DLP member Derek Alleyne et al, which would first fizzle out for reasons of having too few signatures, before it eventually flopped, raising McDowall’s confidence and national profile as leader of a young and vibrant brigade of energetic and seemingly untarnished trade unionists that were simply not interested in towing any particular line, or maintaining any status quo.
With a vote of 168 to 45, which came with seven abstentions, the embattled NUPW President would therefore survive his biggest internal test to date, proving that his assumption of the presidency on April 1, 2015 was by no means an April fool’s joke and that he was not the Batman character known as the joker, even though some in the union might have thought he was, and would have been looking for the first opportunity to de-mask and dispose of him.
But in defence of his critics, it really didn’t help one bit that the former student of The Alexandra School seemingly came to the job with an ego larger than Sir Frank’s hard-to-fill ‘size 12’ marching boots.
In fact, in one of his very first outings with reporters following his ascension to the presidency, McDowall boasted that he had told his 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,” he said in a complete dismissal of the unsuccessful NUPW contenders.
It was really an unnecessary rub and one that – especially his detractors – would hardly forget.
Not surprisingly therefore, McDowall was not afforded any honeymoon period, and that his first ‘major’ misstep almost cost him his head.
It was over the transfer of the NUPW’s medicare scheme to Sagicor, with Capita Financial Services acting as brokers, after the Insurance Corporation of Barbados coverage came to an end.
Through a motion, proposed by NUPW member Kimberley Agard, critics of the new president charged that he had overstepped his boundaries and had acted contrary to a decision of the National Council, the union’s highest decision-making body, on the matter.
In their eyes, this was no little sin, but a big sin deserving of the ultimate punishment for a rogue president who had seemingly gone too far and too soon.
To make matters worse, he had also ‘foolishly’ attended a March for Justice organized by the Opposition Barbados Labour Party, which, according to proposers of the no-confidence motion against him, was not only inimical to the interests of the union but had “the potential to divide and fracture the membership of the National Union of Public Workers”.
However, like the proverbial Prince of Persia, McDowall would be able to fight off the mythical demons. And though bruised and darkened by the NUPW infighting, it would be a more mature sounding McDowall who would greet reporters as he emerged from the battlefield with his army of jubilant supporters.
“I would like to thank all of the members who turned up this evening, even the ones who did not vote for me. I represent people who support me and who do not,” said McDowall at the end of the highly contentious four-hour meeting at the union’s Dalkeith headquarters that was marked by the flaring of tempers.
While not hiding his disappointment over the apparent division in the union, McDowall acknowledged that his immediate task was “to unite as many people as possible so that we can have a strong, unified union going forward”.
With that battle over, McDowall would immediately serve notice of another. But this time the fight would not be for his own survival, but for public servants — including some who had been waiting for over six years for a salary increase and others who wanted nothing more than to get appointed and to have security of tenure.
But he would immediately learn that the Freundel Stuart administration would be no push over, and that if he was really expecting Government to meet his union’s demand for a 23 per cent pay hike, this would be no easily won fight. In fact, he would have to lace his boots in preparation for the Battle of Verdun.
Interestingly, the largest and longest battle of the First World War between the German and French armies lasted from February 21 to December 18, 1916. Similarly, it took Government and the NUPW nearly all of 2016 to resolve a bitter pay dispute at the airport, even though the battle lines were officially drawn from the end of January.
Strike one took the form of a three-hour protest by just over 100 unionized airport employees to press their demands for a 3.5 per cent pay hike. The protest, which started at high noon and finished at three, drew an immediate response from the Chairman of the Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc Alvin Jemmott, who warned that the action could hurt the island’s bread and butter industry.
However, the union was not about to let up, which forced Minister of Labour Dr Esther Byer-Suckoo to get involved.
After two rounds of talks on the matter, Byer-Suckoo would issue her final verdict — that being workers at the Grantley Adams International Airport Inc (GAIA) were not entitled to any 3.5 per cent pay increase.
Speaking to reporters at the end of the talks, the Minister of Labour highlighted a December 28, 2010 meeting chaired by the Prime Minister at which she said the union had agreed that the 3.5 per cent wage increase initially proposed for 2011 was taken off the table.
“. . . and so I had to conclude to the workers who today brought evidence for me to opine on whether or not the 3.5 per cent is owed to them, I had to conclude that it is not, since it was taken off the table in December 2010,” she explained.
The Minister of Labour also called for the union, the workers and GAIA to work harmoniously going forward.
However, the matter proved to be far from over with a defiant McDowall threatening to “fight, fight, fight, until the workers get what is owed to them”.
By October, pressure would be coming at Government from all fronts, not least of all Customs, who, with the help of the NUPW in particular, managed to duck and weave their way out of a sticky BRA situation.
Nationally, there were also worsening issues of water and garbage collection, but just as businessman Ralph Bizzy Williams was prepared to step in with a $60 million rescue package for the Sanitation Service Authority, up jumped McDowall and his general secretary to rubbish the whole idea of SSA privatization.
In the end though, private haulers would be brought into the Government system by way of the backdoor, leaving the NUPW and its SSA membership none the wiser.
However, Government would soon overplay its hand by way of its attempt to cut off the union’s head at the height of this country’s 50th anniversary celebrations and with Britain’s Prince Harry heading up its list of international visitors for the grand finale.
In the end the Royal visit would come off without a hitch, but the attack on McDowall – who was unceremoniously removed from an acting senior position in the public service and relegated to his substantive junior role – had the effect of making the entire country feel very exposed at both major ports of entry – never mind that the Prime Minister was not liking the union’s tactics one bit.
In fact, he described the NUPW ordered go-slow at the ports of entry as nothing short of attempted blackmail.
The Prime Minister also took exception to the fact that the union had embarked on industrial action while the matter was still under negotiation, suggesting that only when “there is a genuine industrial dispute that admits of no easy resolution, that there has been resort to industrial action of any kind”.
“[However], 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,” the Prime Minister complained, while expressing concern about the frequency with which this new approach was being applied by the unions was a rejection of the conventional form of industrial relations.
At the same time, Stuart had also warned that Government was not about to lie down and play dead in the face of the perceived strong-arm approach by the union.
“I have said it before and I will say it again, new wine cannot be accommodated in old wine skins. 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 warned.
However, Government would sooner learn that as far as trade unions go, you touch one, you touch all, as McDowall’s fight quickly became Toni Moore’s fight and that of Mary Redman, Pedro Shepherd and Caswell Franklyn.
By yearend therefore it was not surprising to hear that agreement had been reached between Government and GAIA on a seven per cent pay increase for airport workers who were also able to receive their outstanding back pay in time for Christmas.
And to make life even sweeter for them, they will still be entitled to whatever increase Government eventually agrees to for the entire public service.
We also would not be surprised to learn that the Akanni McDowall matter is quietly settled.
After all, with elections around the corner, who really wants to pick another fight with a man whose blow horn can be heard from the airport, right down to the seaport.
For championing the cause of workers in 2016 with some success; for standing up to Government in a way that the political Opposition simply could not; for getting under our Prime Minister’s skin enough that he was forced to break his silence and for restoring a measure of confidence in our trade union movement, we are pleased to reveal that Akanni McDowall, president of the National Union of Public Workers is our Newsmaker for 2016.