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Unions, the government and CWC on collision course

The latter part of 2010 has been dominated by the public debate over the sale of 51 percent of the Bahamas Telecommunications Company(BTC)to Cable and Wireless Communications(CWC). The unions oppose the sale to the company. The government, nonetheless, has almost concluded the deal.

The debate has been contentious in recent weeks. The unions have lead demonstrations and industrial action. The government has sought to stop them in the Supreme Court. CWC even emerged from the shadows with its Caribbean business CEO David Shaw gracing our shores.

The unions have threatened a general strike. For the Bahamas Communications and Public Officers Union(BCPOU)and the Bahamas Communications and Public Managers Union(BCPMU)the stakes are high.

The government sent home a third of the workers at ZNS Network earlier in the year. They were members of the unions. Now CWC wants to terminate 30 percent of the workers at BTC. They too are represented by the unions. The unions would suffer a devastating blow financially, and in terms of clout, if they lose that many members.

The BTC unions are revolting, in part, out of a sense of self-preservation.

They have enlisted the help of the National Congress of Trade Unions of The Bahamas(NCTUB)and the Trade Union Congress(TUC). The united union movement has vowed to work to block the deal. Thus far its actions have only amounted to a mere annoyance to the government. If the unions cannot make the government fearful, the country will know union threats are meaningless.

For the government, a messy BTC sale at election time could cause it votes.

If the unions are able to pull off a general strike the government could be pressured to make concessions. Governments are not as committed to convictions at election time.

Those concessions, however, will not include the cancelation of the BTC deal. Such a move would make the government look clumsy and foolish at a time when it needs the cash from the BTC sale to help fund election time projects.

CWC has not done a good job thus far with its public relations. It has allowed the unions to define to the country what the company is about and that process has not been kind to CWC.

CWC has another problem. The British firm is buying a company and the employees of the company do not like it. When the deal is sealed, what level of productivity does CWC expect to get from the staff at BTC?

The government’s determination to sell the majority stake in BTC to CWC will lead to major conflict in 2011. That conflict will likely consume the Free National Movement, the unions or CWC. In fact, all of them may be felled in the process.

Based on commitments already made and positions already taken, the government must sell, CWC must buy and the unions must strike.

The BTC privatization will likely serve as a lesson for governments, unionists and business leaders going forward. All will learn what not to do.

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