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Rocky relations

Big test for Minnis as union tensions near boiling point
Doctors at Princess Margaret Hospital during one of their protests several weeks ago.

In September 2016 while he was in opposition, the Free National Movement (FNM) deputy, Peter Turnquest, observed that trade unions in The Bahamas “are a good barometer of how people feel”.

Turnquest pointed to the “strong statements” coming from both umbrella unions.

“I think it says a lot about how people feel about this government in general,” he said.

He was of course talking about the Christie administration, which had fallen out of favor with the unions and the Bahamian people in general.

The leaders of the major trade unions had declared a “war on the government” over various issues and demanded stronger labor laws.

Turnquest at the time cautioned them to show restraint to avoid negatively impacting the economy with industrial action.

In our democracy, trade unions and the various associations representing workers continue to play a crucial role, though their relevance is sometimes questioned in a modern Bahamas.

Amid growing tensions from various unions, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis on Monday met with about 40 representatives from unions in the country. While Minnis was no doubt aiming to show himself as a prime minister who listens and is willing to resolve labor related issues, no one we know expected any resolution to those issues in such a forum with so many people meeting at once presenting their issues.

Minnis later told reporters that the goal is to improve communications with the unions. He did not seem concerned about a threat from some unions of a “general strike”, saying yesterday that he is more concerned about whether the Saxons will win the approaching Boxing Day Junkanoo Parade.

It does not seem likely that we will see a general strike anytime soon — if ever again — but Minnis’ remark was widely seen as insensitive and inappropriate, even if he was only kidding.

Truth is, every administration that we can remember has had a tough time with unions in The Bahamas and has often been subjected to threats of industrial action.

In 2011, John Pinder, at the time president of the Bahamas Public Service Union (BPSU), threatened the Ingraham administration with a general strike over a dispute involving lump sum payment and increments.

“I think sufficient members have been impacted, not only the BPSU, but also in the other quasi-government agencies, that we can get together and do what is necessary to get a favorable timely response,” he said at the time.

“If that means that we have to have a general strike, well you know in 1950 that is the only way they were able to get the results.”

Union leaders love to threaten a “general strike”, knowing full well that in today’s Bahamas it is not a very likely prospect.

These days, Pinder is on the other side of the fence.

As director of labor, he recently downplayed a similar threat from unions as labor unrest built against the Minnis administration in certain quarters.

Pinder said while he is concerned about the state of labor relations in The Bahamas, he believes that some of the unions are just “flexing their muscles”.

Multiple unions and staff associations are agitating.

The Bahamas Nurses Union (BNU), the Consultant Physicians Staff Association (CPSA), the Bahamas Doctors Union (BDU), the Bahamas Union of Teachers (BUT), the Union of Tertiary Educators of The Bahamas (UTEB), the Bahamas Industrial Manufacturers and Allied Workers Union (BIMAWU), the Bahamas Communications and Public Officers Union (BCPOU), the Bahamas Communications and Public Managers Union (BCPMU) and the Bahamas Hotel Catering and Allied Workers Union (BHCAU) are all uneasy.

True friend of workers?

Senior doctors who make up the CPSA have been on strike for more than a week now, demanding higher salaries, health insurance and improved working conditions. They are Minnis’ and Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands’ professional colleagues. It is surprising that they have thus far been unable to resolve the issues.

That the doctors went on strike in the first place is unfortunate. Minnis stepped in after the action started.

Pinder expressed disappointment in the CPSA’s decision to withdraw services. He insisted negotiations with the Public Hospitals Authority were not at a stalemate.

Speaking of the senior doctors, the labor director said, “Some of these guys [aren’t] pulling their weight no how.”

Pinder seems to have forgotten his time in trade unionism as he is openly critical of workers agitating for better pay and improved working conditions.

The Minnis administration is trying to fight the perception that it is increasingly not labor friendly.

Successive administrations have fought such claims. Oftentimes, the multiple issues facing trade unions — and there are always many issues they are agitating for — feature prominently in election campaigns and in the months leading to general elections.

In 2011, Jennifer Isaacs-Dotson, then president of the National Congress of Trade Unions, claimed the Ingraham government was “not labor friendly”.

“The government is setting the tone for industrial relations in this country towards the workers of this country, which has not been very good. This is not a labor friendly government. I do not see what this government has done for the workers that has made workers be able to pay bills, and provide for themselves,” she said.

But Ingraham’s most contentious period with unions came during the periods leading to the downsizing of the Bahamas Telecommunications Corporation and later the privatization of the entity, which became the Bahamas Telecommunications Company.

In 1999, initial attempts at privatizing Batelco led to massive demonstrations that saw protestors clash with police.

Former Prime Minister the late Sir Lynden Pindling at the time appealed for civility and calm in industrial relations.

Every administration has sought to have smooth relations with unions, recognizing the power they still wield to disrupt the economy — even if the prospects of a national strike are far-fetched — and the impact bad industrial relations have generally on how the government is viewed by the wider electorate.

In 2014, the PLP administration faced significant tensions with the union representing customs and immigration officers over financial issues impacting their members.

Union President Sloane Smith said the PLP had taken advantage of unions.

But the Ministry of Labour said the record reflected “that the promises made to the trade union movement by the PLP had been dutifully and zealously carried out”.

In late 2016, trade unions had a strong presence at a Black Friday march organized by the group We March Bahamas. It was an opportunity for everyone with a concern against the government — including unions — to reject the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) in wholesale fashion.

FNM Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis and his party seized upon the opportunity to march against the PLP. Minnis pledged that the FNM would have a better record at addressing labor disputes and in listening to the concerns of the people.

The FNM soon came with its “people’s time” election slogan which was hugely appealing to voters.

It said it is a “true friend of workers” and recognized that workers of our country form the bedrock of our economy.

“The FNM has taken note of the many challenges facing workers, the labor movement and the resulting negative impact on national productivity and the welfare of workers,” the party said.

Today, like Christie and Ingraham before him, Minnis is challenged with quelling brewing unrest among the unions.

Yesterday, the prime minister said the government will not derail its fiscal reform program to appease the unions although he said it will see if it has any wiggle room to meet the unions’ demands.

CPSA representatives are expected to meet today with Acting Financial Secretary Marlon Johnson to discuss their financial issues and to see what the government is able and willing to accommodate.

Brewing storm

While officials of the CPSA indicated they were hopeful after meeting with the prime minister on Monday, other union leaders saw their meeting with Minnis as largely a waste of time or simply a courtesy call.

There are likely many factors contributing to the brewing storm in labor relations.

One of the difficulties the government faces in dealing with the CPSA, the nurses union and other unions on financial matters is its decision a few months ago to purchase the Grand Lucayan resort in Grand Bahama. The purchase price was $65 million, but it is spending millions more on separation packages, renovations and monthly operational expenses.

It hopes to sell the property at some point, claiming that there are up to a dozen interested buyers.

Some unions making their demands say the government’s claim of being in a fiscal crunch does not square with its irresponsible purchase of the resort. We still do not yet know how much the Grand Lucayan investment has actually cost when everything is tallied.

It seems many of the issues facing the various unions and

employee groups have festered for quite some time.

Even Opposition Leader Philip Brave Davis acknowledged this.

After the prime minister’s meeting with union leaders on Monday, Davis said, “The level of discontent [and] frustration that reside amongst the workers of this country, that have issues that inform those feelings, not having been addressed over these many months, almost years in some instances, could not have been resolved after having one meeting with all of the unions.

“I think he needs to meet with each union on different levels to address their [individual concerns].”

Long-standing unresolved issues are now coming to a head. Whereas Minnis and the FNM could previously sit back in opposition and criticize the inability of the Christie administration to have smooth labor relations, in government they must find the answers.

They are not likely to get by with simply pointing to fiscal constraints.

They now have the power to deliver on their promise of harmonious dealings with the unions and reduce the rising temperature of a heated labor relations climate in The Bahamas.

Rising tensions among the trade unions could prove to be a bellwether of what is to come in terms of the growing angst in the wider population.

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