Deep-seated divisions in the leadership of the country’s largest public sector trade union are once again spilling into the public domain as another executive election looms.
One faction within the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) led by third vice-president Kimberley Agard is accusing current union president Akanni McDowall of using the organisation to advance his own personal interests.
The matters came to a head last Saturday when some members walked out of the annual general conference after a vote was carried to reimburse McDowall $6,000 that he was previously ordered to repay in relation to alleged misuse of union funds.
McDowall has however told Barbados TODAY that Saturday’s conference agreed that the union should return the monies that he was mandated to pay on the grounds that he was unjustly accused, tried and convicted in 2019 without evidence or due process.
The president also maintains that he continues to be driven by the needs of public workers, and his actions on Saturday were all consistent with the union’s constitution. Meanwhile, some of his allies within the executive arm believe the sudden complaints are merely par for the course in the upcoming union election.
Agard, who has been expressly supported by at least four other members said that for years, members have kept silent about their opposition to the leadership of McDowall, but for them, Saturday’s conference represented an all-time low.
In addition to the ‘credit card issue’, she challenged recent statistics presented to the public, which suggest that the NUPW’s membership stands at over 10,000. Claiming that there is evidence to the contrary, the third vice president contended that if the information is untrue, it would have significant implications for NUPW affiliate organisations locally, regionally and internationally, who collect fees based on membership.
“The bigger issue is that with all of the things going on within the public service and the issues affecting the membership, rather than using the highest decision-making body of the organisation to advance the causes of the organisation and the members, you chose to use it to advance your personal agenda,” Agard charged in reference to McDowall’s leadership.
The third vice president added that the conference should have been used to discuss issues like government’s pension reform proposal, the work-from-home policy and the contracts for top jobs in government.
Conversely, McDowall described Saturday’s conference meeting as “one of the most productive” since becoming president and one of the best attended with persons joining physically and over the internet. He also slammed “the same band of people” for engaging in disruptive behavior every year.
“This year was no different. As per usual, I was undaunted and we were not distracted from the work of the conference,” McDowall responded.
“You know what is said about empty vessels making the most noise. So the choice for them was either to walk out or be put out of the meeting. They chose to walk out,” the president added.
He then explained that some of the positive developments from Sunday’s meeting included a proposal that public servants receive automatic appointments after acting for an entire year.
“As it relates to the credit card issue, conference agreed that it was unjust for me to be accused, tried and convicted without evidence or being given the opportunity to present the facts. The meeting agreed to return the monies that I was mandated to pay,” McDowall.
The dissenters have also taken aim at a decision to postpone the union elections that were constitutionally due on Wednesday April 7, due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation. McDowall however said he had no part in those recommendations, as they fell within the domain of the election committee which set a date of May 15.
The president also has the backing of the first vice president Kim Webster who said the complaints were being peddled by a “loud and disrespectful bunch”.
She claimed that throughout the six-hour meeting, McDowall stuck to the rule book which did not redound to the benefit of his opposers.
“What you must be mindful of is the fact that elections are in the air, and you know how everybody behaves. Everybody wants to win and everybody wants to pull down persons, whether they are doing good or bad, and I am not one for that,” she told Barbados TODAY.
“It is a member body and we are doing things for the members, not for personal gratification and persons need to be mindful of that,” she added.
Agard however maintained that the recent events were the “last straw” and she did not mind if it is perceived as a campaign strategy.
“There were elections before where the majority of us ran and we did not come out. We did not speak out, but when you analyse it and realise that if we don’t come out, we will have to deal with this for another two years, because persons will make their decisions based on what they hear,” she added.
John Parris, who is a member of national council said the last straw for him occurred when McDowall presented the “credit card issue”, which for him had already been resolved.
“To me he was misleading the membership, and to use that forum in my opinion was inappropriate, because we were there to deal with the members’ matters and for him to bring it up at that stage and not give the membership the entire picture. He still pushed that agenda and in the end, when it was put to a vote, the ‘nays’ significantly outweighed the ‘ayes’, the council. To me that was the last straw, because it was a blatant misuse of power.” ([email protected])