The island’s largest public sector trade union failed to inspire its members to join last week’s strike because civil servants saw through the union’s attempts at backing Government in a corner, according to Minister of Labour Dr Esther Byer-Suckoo.
In providing an analysis of the unsuccessful national shutdown, Byer-Suckoo all but dismissed the National Union of Public Workers’ (NUPW) effort as a joke, stating that it was pulling workers’ legs by demanding a 23 per cent pay rise for its members.
However, the minister told Barbados TODAY the workers understood Government’s fiscal situation and sent a message to the union by defying its orders, and showing up for work.
“I think a lot of people have been reading the situation well. At the end of the day Barbadians are intelligent people. The workers understand that anybody who could promise them at the end of the day that they would get a significant increase in salary is only pulling their legs for short-term gain. The workers understand this and they realize that this is not the time for industrial action,” Byer-Suckoo told Barbados TODAY on the sidelines of a meeting of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) St Michael West Central branch at Lawrence T Gay Memorial School on Sunday.
The NUPW called out its members for “two days of protest and resistance” last Thursday and Friday after it failed to force the Freundel Stuart administration to meet its January 15 deadline to conclude protracted wage talks, which have dragged on for about two years.
The union had said in a statement that public servants had borne the brunt of the austery measures introduced by the Stuart Government and had reached the tipping point.
It was a far cry from the positive note it had sounded following preliminary talks in June 2016, from which the leadership had emerged saying it was upbeat about the negotiations.
However, the talks have gone sour since, as Government has stuck to its offer of zero per cent, although when the two sides last met over a month ago, an offer of a $49 million lump sum coping subsidy was put on the table. The union roundly rejected the offer, and instead demanded a $60 million lump sum, which would allow for an across-the-board $2,500 payment, to help cope with the rising cost of living occasioned by the much-hated National Social Responsibility Levy announced by Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler last May as part of an austerity budget.
In explaining the rationale for the January 15 deadline, NUPW President Akanni McDowall had told Barbados TODAY his union was cognizant that Parliament must be dissolved by the end of March of this year, therefore civil servants were not about to squander their chances of securing a salary increase by allowing the matter to drag on until Stuart finally decides to ring the election bell.
However, Byer-Suckoo suggested that McDowall was in fact attempting to hold the DLP administration to ransom on the cusp of the general election, and it backfired.
She further said the NUPW would be wise to return to the negotiating table and consider Government’s proposed alternative to the pay hike.
“From the civil servants that I spoke to it is really an understanding that the union was only attempting to strike now because there is an election on the horizon and the Government would be forced to give into the demands because they wanted to get back in power. But we in the Democratic Labour Party are not going to make those promises and the risk of impacting the country in the long term,” Byer-Suckoo said.
“They also realize that this notion that there has been no negotiations has to be corrected. It is not a case where the union came out and asked for one thing and Government said flat out, ‘no’. There has been some discussion about other things that can be offered though not in the range of the salary increase that the union would like at this time. At this point it might make sense to consider what is actually doable. I hope that now they have had the action and having seen the effect, maybe we can now get back to the negotiation table,” she stressed.
The NUPW boss would not comment on Byer-Suckoo’s statement, choosing instead to refer Barbados TODAY to a press statement issued over the weekend.
“The NUPW is committed to securing a salary increase for its members, regardless of the party in power, endorsement from other unions or the opinions of social commentators. Neither silence, contempt, award or reward will sway us to do otherwise,” the statement read.
The union also disputed reports that the strike had been a failure, arguing in the statement that “initial reports indicate that our efforts were effective, based on the numbers of members who stayed away from work and the respective Government departments adversely affected”.