A cloud of uncertainty and industrial relations turmoil is hanging over the country, which is facing the possibility of major disruptions in the heat of the Crop Over season.
The island’s leading trade unions – the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union (BSTU), the Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT), the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) and the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) today gave Prime Minister Freundel Stuart 48 hours to respond positively to their demands for a reprieve from the austerity measures announced in the May 30 Budget, or face a possible national shutdown.
The threat came after the leaders of the four unions had earlier aborted an attempt to hand-deliver their request in writing to the Prime Minister.
“We will give the Government 48 hours to respond to the request that we made and if we don’t have a favourable response we will do what we have to do as a trade union movement,” NUPW President Akanni McDowall told Barbados TODAY after addressing a gathering of members of the unions at Independence Square.
Earlier, an estimated 400 shop stewards and other members joined McDowall, BSTU President Mary Redman, BUT President Pedro Shepherd and BWU General Secretary Toni Moore in a walk from Queen’s Park, The City, to Independent Square.
From there the four leaders made the trek to Parliament, where they expected to present Stuart, along with Opposition Leader Mia Mottley and Independent Members of Parliament Owen Arthur and Dr Maria Agard, with copies of the letter containing their demands.
The march was forced to proceed more slowly than initially planned because Redman tore several ligaments when she twisted her ankle at Queen’s Park.
The drama at parliament square heightened after Stuart initially refused to meet with all four trade union leaders, advising them through a police officer that he was prepared to meet just one, McDowall said, describing the Prime Minister’s action as an act of disrespect.
“We tried to deliver the letter to the Prime Minister first as a sign of respect. He sent an officer to us saying that he would allow the letter to be delivered but only by one leader. All of us said no. We were going to stay together. It is either that the Prime Minister accept that all four leaders would have to deliver the letter or we would just leave the letter with the reception,” he reported.
Having decided to move on, the four met with Mottley and were on their way out when the officer returned to advise that the Prime Minister was prepared to meet them all.
However, McDowall said by then they “could not meet with the Prime Minister because we definitely could not leave our members there [Independence Square].
“So, we left his letter along with those of the two Independent MPs [who were absent from Parliament] at reception,” he explained.
Despite shouts from the members gathered at Independence Square for their labour representatives to “up the thing” – a call for tougher action, the BWU’s Toni Moore refused to be drawn into revealing details of the unions’ next move, telling Barbados TODAY the executives of the four unions had been discussing a number of possible scenarios and she “would not want to speak out of turn.
“I think that what happens now is, as we agreed before, that we would regroup immediately after what took place because we could not anticipate the response – what exactly the response would have been,” Moore said.
“We also would not want to be previous because we see it as very necessary for us to allow that 48 hours to really have meaning and we are still . . . hopeful that there will be a favourable response, that we really would not have to ‘up de ting’ as is being called for,” Moore added.
The unions had previously demanded that Government rescinds the steep increase in the National Social Responsibility Levy (NSRL), which climbed from two per cent to ten per cent as of July 1, or give workers a coping subsidy.
However, at a meeting with shop stewards last week, they backed down somewhat, stating they were prepared to live with the NSRL at five per cent.
This prompted some to accuse the trade unions of “selling out”, a charge Moore today rejected as unfounded.
She was adamant the unions were “really committed to positive responses in the interest of Barbadians . . . who [are] suffering . . . cannot endure the taxes, Barbadians who can’t take any more of what is being meted out to them.
“We are hoping that reasonableness [and] caring would prevail, but in the interim we will meet amongst ourselves, amongst our combined executives and so on, we will formulate a plan and we are confident that our shop stewards are with us to execute whatever we feel is the next step,” Moore said.