R. Rose - Eye of the Needle
January 18, 2019
Sad and Worrying

THE MEETING between Government and the leadership of the local trade unions last Friday marked another sad chapter in the continuing deterioration of relations between employer and representatives of public sector employees as well as signalling a worrying start to 2019.

Instead of a frank roundtable discussion, the meeting went ahead without the representatives of the three public sector bodies, the Teachers’ (SVGTU) and Public Service Union (PSU) and the Police Welfare Association (PWA), who refused to participate on the basis that they were not surrendering their phones as security requirements at the Prime Minister’s office stipulated. It was left to the leadership of the National Workers Movement (NWM), and the Commercial, Technical and Allied Workers Union (CTAWU), both of which represent some daily-paid, non-pensionable government employees,to participate in the meeting.

This development and the subsequent rancour which has emerged publicly, have important implications not just for the immediate issue of salary increases but also for workers and the labour movement on a wider, longer-lasting basis which cannot be ignored. It is puzzling that it took the matter of “smartphone” surrender for those who boycotted the meeting to take the action that they did, particularly when it has been an established practice, as far as I know, for such security arrangements to be in place at the office of the Prime Minister. To be fair however, one union leader claimed that this practice was not observed on other occasions when she had represented her union. Equally puzzling is the fact that the PWA leader was one of those refusing to observe the security protocol.

It is difficult for me to believe that the “smartphone” issue was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, so it may be more

instructive to take the scheduled meeting in context. ForThe recent High Court ruling upholding the PSU’s allegation of unfair practices in promotion in the public service would also have emboldened the unions and created an atmosphere of justification on their part.

some time now the government and the public sector unions have been at loggerheads on a range of issues. Failure to negotiate collective agreements between them has complicated the situation, often placing what should be in the sphere of industrial relations in the wider public, and political domain.

The recent High Court ruling upholding the PSU’s allegation of unfair practices in promotion in the public service would also have emboldened the unions and created an atmosphere of justifi cation on their part.

But was a boycott of the meeting the correct tactic in the situation? Or was it a smokescreen employed by the leadership who seemed convinced that attending the scheduled meeting would have no positive outcome as far as their demands were concerned?

Some answers can be gleaned from the statements of some of the leaders of the unions who refused to participate.

The PWA’s Brenton Smith is reported as saying that he did not believe that even if they had attended the meeting there would have been any different outcome. He accused PM Gonsalves of having a “take it or leave it attitude”. A similar opinion was expressed by PSU President Elroy Boucher, saying that the Prime Minister “is not open to negotiation” and that the outcome of the meeting would have been “no different” had they attended. All three expressed dissatisfaction with the small increases agreed at the meeting- 1% from July 2018, 1.5% from January 2019 and 2% for 2020, increases which Smith dubbed as “a total insult”. The government had justified these on the basis of economic realities, but it is known that some public sector unions have embraced the idea of the “Citizen by Investment Programme” (CIP) as a means of raising revenue for the state thus enabling it to afford the 10% increases sought by the unions.

Additionally, Boucher disclosed that he had been informed that the increases agreed to were going to be placed on the table at the meeting. Was this the real reason for the boycott, a feeling of futility? It speaks volumes about the level of trust between government and the unions on one hand, but also within the labour movement as a whole, which has important bearing for the future of the National Labour Congress. Thus how can one ignore the fact that salary increases for teachers and public servants are sanctioned not by their legitimate union representatives, but by other unions which do not represent the bulk of public service employees?

It is well known that leaders of the unions which participated are in support of the governing Unity Labour Party while allegations have been made that leaders of those boycotting unions are sympathetic at least to the opposition New Democratic Party. Are the unions to allow party politics to divide the labour movement when unity is most needed?

Blame whoever we like, but it is clear that in the current circumstances, neither the workers nor the country as a whole will gain. The government cannot simply dismiss the situation by saying that the unions “have missed the opportunity” nor can the union leaders hide behind the “smartphone” fig leaf. We have to be bigger, more responsible than that and not continue to court confrontation and confusion.

● Renwick Rose is a community activist and social comm entator.