The pressure continues to mount on the island’s largest public sector trade union to back off from any further industrial action at this time to try to force the Freundel Stuart administration to meet its demands for a 23 per cent pay hike and a coping subsidy of $60 million.
A two-day strike called by the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) last Thursday and Friday, and its promise to continue pressing for an increase, have already been described by Government spokespersons as selfish, nonsense and badly timed.
This morning, one of Barbados’ leading scholars was even more dramatic in his description of the NUPW’s negotiating tactic, comparing it to a drive-by shooting.
“The tactics at this moment are a bit premature and misguided because you [NUPW] don’t have widespread union solidarity . . . and [are] not [considering] the realities of the economy. So your 23 per cent, for example, or some of the policies associated with your coping mechanism are not on all squares with Government’s counter-suggestions. So, you want to be negotiating and not engaging in a proverbial drive-by shooting . . . because that’s not a negotiation. If you are going to pull those tactics, that’s a drive-by shooting,” Director of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES) Dr Don Marshall told Barbados TODAY on the sidelines of a roundtable discussion to examine the relevance of the work of the late acclaimed regional economist Sir Arthur Lewis to the challenges of Caribbean development.
The SALISES director said he was concerned about the way the NUPW leadership has been handling the salary dispute in terms of safeguarding the future of the trade union as an institution and its understanding of trade union practices.
“As it stands right now, they are in the midst of a negotiation and that negotiation is many-sided, in that it is not simply unions engaged with Government, but the unions among themselves have to settle on an approach and a kind of an estimable percentage point increase, and also modality as to whether or not this would take the form of a wage settlement beginning later this year, or commencing with a one-off payment to be followed in a subsequent period with another kind of payment,” he said.
The NUPW had given Government a January 15 deadline conclude salary negotiations, arguing that it did not want to wait until after the general election to begin talks with a new administration.
Having failed to pressure back to the negotiating table, the union called out its members last Thursday and Friday, in what turned out to be an unsuccessful strike.
Marshall told Barbados TODAY NUPW President Akanni McDowall had got ahead of himself by calling the strike, particularly since he did not have the support of the Barbados Workers’ Union, the Barbados Union of Teachers or the Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations of Barbados.
In addition, the economist said the union’s action “sets up a potential collision or potential conflict of interest arising in the event of a general election and a new Government coming into place . . . how it would treat to any new Government coming into place in relation to the same issues. The fundamentals are not going to change”.
“So if you are insisting on a particular increase now in a circumstance where Government is hard-pressed to meet whatever figure you deem worthy and your unions cannot line up behind that figure as well . . . it seems premature, if not rather haughty, that you would want to exercise such a drastic tactic,” he said.
The prominent academic urged the NUPW to be mindful that its demands must be in accordance with what the economy could afford, or what any new Government would see as reasonable.
Marshall said while the NUPW had a right to call a strike now, its legitimacy would be questionable if it did not pursue similar action against a new administration “because the workers would feel that this was action precipitated on some narrow agenda to pursue regime change”.
However, he said it was a case of overzealousness, and not political motivation, that influenced the NUPW to call out its members.
At the same time, he said Prime Minister Freundel Stuart had created a level of expectation among the unions following a meeting of the Social Partnership last August.
“Objectively, if you think about it, the Prime Minister by indicating to the unions at the time of the last televised Social Partnership arrangement, that he is prepared to engage them and when fuller knowledge of the receipts from the NSRL, he would have set up an agenda of expectations. So realistically, election or no election, a demand for closure on wage negotiations would have been on him and the Government around this time anyway,” Marshall said.
Despite the heavy criticism of the decision to stage a national shutdown last week, the union has made it clear that it “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,” it said in a weekend statement.