Hundreds of school children and other commuters were forced to make alternative arrangements this morning after unionized workers at the state-run Transport Board walked off the job, complaining about alleged privatization, among a number of grievances.
The surprise action began affecting the national bus service from as early as 3:30 a.m. and by 9 a.m. when Barbados TODAY arrived at the Transport Board’s Weymouth, St Michael headquarters it was clear that commuters who depend on the Government service were in for a rough ride as the majority of blue and yellow Marcopolo buses remained parked on the compound, while their drivers simply milled around at the Police Sports Club next door.
As a result, the Transport Board was forced to operate a very limited bus schedule today. Apart from its chartered buses, including a special service for the disabled, only two commercial bus routes could be serviced, namely Bridgetown to Garrison/Warrens and Bridgetown to Martin’s Bay.
Marketing and Corporate Communications Manager Lynda Holder told Barbados TODAY while she was aware of a number of ongoing concerns, today’s strike action by the majority of the Board’s close to 800 employees came as a total surprise to management.
“At this point we have not been given any reason for the strike. We have been trying to reach representation from the Barbados Workers’ Union headquarters. I understand that the employees that are on the road are also speaking directly to the Barbados Workers’ Union. So we are just waiting for them to come back to us and let us know what is happening,” Holder said.
Emphasizing that there was no prior warning ahead of today’s “wildcat” strike, she said: “I cannot tell you of a specific thing that has occurred yesterday or today that would have led to this situation. We are still trying to get an official reason as to what is happening.”
Barbados TODAY understands that the workers are unhappy about a number of matters, including attempts to put them on a shorter work week, the lack of timely repairs to buses and what they deemed to be attempts by Government to slowly divest the loss making Transport Board following the recent launch of the Transport Authority Service Integration (TASI) project involving private transport operators.
However, a seemingly oblivious Holder said as soon as management was officially made aware of the reasons behind the strike they would decide the next steps.
“The general complaint is that they [commuters] cannot get where they need to go. We have been having some difficulties and this has just compounded the situation. We do apologize to the commuters for the inconvenience, but at this point there is very little to nothing that we can do until we actually hear what the concerns are and then seek to address them,” she said.
Today, the Princess Alice and Fairchild Street bus terminals resembled ghost towns, with only a handful of commuters seemingly waiting in the hope that the workers would return to their jobs.
However, some indicated that they were waiting to access one of the private vans involved in the TASI project, with Holder suggesting that while the Board usually had contingency plans in place for wildcat strikes, “the challenge is that this is organizational-wide.
“So even our back up persons would have been pulled out. So we have to wait and see what is going to be the discussion and then we will be able to go from there,” she said.
The spokeswoman was however not in a position to say how many of the state’s buses were currently in working condition or were in need of repair.
Meantime, Chairman of the Barbados Private Sector Association (BPSA) Charles Herbert described the situation as disruptive, saying it was not a good time for such protest action to be taking place.
He said it meant that privately operated public service vehicles would have to pick up the slack.
“It is going to be disruptive,” he said.
“We have to see how much the private carriers can pick up. There have always been different numbers as to what percentage of the population is carried by the private carriers versus the Transport Board. I guess this will begin to show us a bit of that,” he said as some commuters openly complained that today’s strike came without any notice to them.
“I only went by the terminal just now and found out that the bus drivers are on strike,” one angry parent told Barbados TODAY this morning, pointing out that her daughter would be late for school.
The St George Primary School student also said she was “very mad” because she was usually early for school and today’s strike would negatively affect her attendance record.
Following a meeting with the aggrieved workers, BWU General Secretary Toni Moore said the workers walked off the job because “a number of things are going on at the Transport Board that doesn’t bring them satisfaction”.
She also told reporters that the union’s next move would be decided following a meeting with the Board’s management.
“Based on an exchange then we will determine what next steps would be taken,” she said.
Up to late this evening no resolution was seemingly forthcoming as the workers remained off the job. However, speaking on the state run Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation late this evening Minister of Transport Michael Lashley said he was prepared to meet with the workers tomorrow to discuss their concerns.
Lashley also pointed out that the aging fleet has always been a challenge. And while assuring workers that there was no plan afoot to privatize the Transport Board at this stage and that their jobs were safe, he said the private sector has been working alongside Transport Board for years.
Today’s action came on the heels of a sick out by Transport Board workers back in July.
On that occasion less than 20 of the more than 100 operational buses were on the road in support of demands by the BWU and its sister trade unions for a 50 per cent rollback of the National Social Responsibility Levy, which was increased from two to ten per cent on July 1. Failing that, they had called on Government to grant workers a coping subsidy.
However, to date the Freundel Stuart administration is yet to budge to those demands.
Nonetheless, by 10 p.m. Monday Lashley was able to report that the bus strike was over and that the two sides, after holding preliminary talks this evening, were preparing to return to the bargaining table on Tuesday morning.