The leadership of one of the local unions which represent public servants, the Public Service Union (PSU), has raised the stakes in its long-running dispute with the government of Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves. The union, led by its President Elroy Boucher, has been at loggerheads with the government on a number of issues over the years.
Most recently, the PSU has taken issue with the government on the issue of a vaccine requirement for certain categories of public servants and has urged members of the union to participate in protests organized in conjunction with the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) outside the House of Assembly.
Earlier this week the PSU issued a press statement serving notice that it will take industrial action as voted by the union’s membership at a general meeting on August 2. The statement also indicated that at a meeting held with nurses on August 18, the nurses took the decision to withdraw their services during this same period to protest the Amendments to the Public Health Act approved by Parliament earlier this month.
Those amendments seemed to be the current major bone of contention between the union and the government. However different aspects of this disagreement have been raised, complicating the situation. Some union members had reportedly raised their objection to being required to take an “experimental vaccine”. But now that the FDA of the United States has fully approved the locally available Pfizer vaccine, Boucher now claims the issue is the approach taken by the Government.
The refusal by some front line personnel to taking the vaccine and objecting to regular testing as well is certainly puzzling in light of the pandemic and especially the arrival of the deadly delta strain in the Caribbean. This has forced several governments to take firm action to protect their populations. The PSU head has said that such measures are not needed as the virus is under control here in St Vincent and the Grenadines. Have we not learned anything from the COVID19 outbreak here in January 2021 or from how quickly the situation has changed in countries like Dominica that had very few, if any, cases for several months? Is it the recommendation of the Union that we wait for an outbreak before taking action? Patience will result in patients. The time to fortify ourselves is now, while we have the opportunity.
It is unfortunate that moral suasion and concern for the health of the population have not been able to sway those who have conscientious objection. However it is also clear that some of the persons involved in the protests have a political agenda and this may be complicating the issue, hardening the positions on both sides. One recalls for instance, that Mr Boucher himself had issued a call before the last election, for PSU members to vote for the NDP.
It is left to be seen what will evolve over the next two weeks and whether common sense and love of country will prevail. It is also easy for public servants who have not lost a single cent from their pay cheques during this entire pandemic to advocate a ‘wait and see’ attitude rather than taking a more proactive posture to protecting our people and kickstarting our economy.
While recognizing the individuals’ right of conscience, public safety and public health are paramount and blind objection without suggesting positive alternatives will not help.
Public servants have traditionally been reluctant to take industrial action. Whether they will follow the union leadership is left to be seen.