Our intention is not to assume the role of judge and jury in this particular instance. That role is best left to the court of public opinion. Besides, since we were not eyewitnesses to what transpired, we can only rely, in commenting on an obvious matter of public interest, on the differing version of events as told by the main protagonists.
Following last Tuesday’s protest Walk for Relief staged by the island’s leading trade unions over the onerous 400 per cent increase in the National Social Responsibility Levy (NSRL), Prime Minister Freundel Stuart was accused of disrespecting the island’s trade unions by refusing to meet the four leaders as a group so that they could hand-deliver a letter outlining their concerns about the effects of the tax measure on workers.
Speaking afterwards to the approximately 400 workers who participated in the walk as well as others who had gathered in Independence Square, President of the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) Akanni McDowall outlined what had transpired.
“We tried to deliver the letter to the Prime Minister first as a sign of respect. He sent a [police] officer to us saying he would allow the letter to be delivered but by only one leader. All of us said no. We are going to stay together. It is either that the Prime Minister accepts that all four leaders would have to deliver the letter or we would just leave the letter with the reception.”
After failing to see Mr Stuart, Mr McDowall, Toni Moore, general secretary of the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU), Mary Redman, president of the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union (BSTU), and Pedro Shepherd, president of the Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT) had afforded an audience with Opposition Leader Mia Mottley, to whom a similar letter with the unions’ concerns was also presented, along with other senior representatives of the Barbados Labour Party (BLP).
The following day, Mr Stuart issued a statement through the Barbados Government Information Service (BGIS) disputing the union leaders’ version of events. He said though he was initially expecting one person to deliver the letter, after he was informed there were others, he was willing to meet them and made himself available.
“I waited upstairs in my office at Parliament for upwards of one half of an hour for the persons who were to deliver the letter,” the Prime Minister’s statement said. “When I enquired about the delay, I was told the trade unionists were meeting with the Leader of the Opposition and they would come to me afterwards.
“Subsequent to that, I got a follow-up message that the union leaders will leave the letter downstairs Parliament because their police permission had imposed timelines which they did not want to breach. So it is not true to say that I refused to meet with the union leaders,” Mr Stuart said at the time.
However, Mr McDowall confirmed that the police officer, who he said initially told them that only one leader would be allowed to see Mr Stuart, subsequently returned after their meeting with the Opposition Leader to say that the Prime Minister would see them all. But due to time constraints related to the police permission for holding the protest, the NUPW leader said they could not do so at that stage and therefore left the letter to be passed on.
It seems that a communication mix-up occurred along the way. However, an interesting question is why did the Prime Minister allow 24 hours to pass before moving to counter the union leaders’ version of events? Swift responses in such situations are necessary because the longer the delay, especially in the modern 24-hour news cycle, the greater the risk that the inaccuracy may come to be taken as fact.
Considering that the union leaders gave their side of the story just after midday Tuesday and it was being broadcast on the airwaves, Mr Stuart, or whoever happens to be managing his public relations, should have immediately called up the media houses to ensure that his version of events got into the public domain the very same day. If Barbadians are skeptical about Mr Stuart’s version of events and are giving the benefit of the doubt to the union leaders, then our Prime Minister has only himself to blame.
Communication with key stakeholders and the wider public has never appeared to be a priority for the incumbent administration, especially Mr Stuart. To the best of our knowledge, unlike previous prime ministers, Mr Stuart does not have a press secretary on his staff. In this media and information age, there are consequences whenever communication is taken for granted. And the most obvious is that one can end up hurting one’s cause through one’s actions.