R. Rose - Eye of the Needle
February 8, 2019
Random comments: local situation, budget and others

As I write this column, the 2019 Budget Debate in the House of Assembly is continuing. This fact and the need to take a rounded examination of the Budget address by the Hon. Minister of Finance before coming to definitive conclusions ought to be guiding those of us who express views in the public domain. Unfortunately, too many of us are only too quick to jump in with hasty conclusions, based on a ‘pick and choose’ approach without taking into consideration the wider context of our economy and the range of global and regional factors which affect us.

It is a pity that the presentation of the 2019 Budget was, like others before it, particularly in the last two years before general elections, clouded by conflicts over salary negotiations with public service employees. Worse, the government, by actions which have proven to be counter-productive, has pursued actions which have on the run-up to the elections, been ruled against on three occasions by the Courts. In each of the cases, one can only conclude that it has unnecessarily, by omission or commission, allowed what the Prime Minister himself has called “side shows” to provide a catalyst for the continued deterioration in government-public sector relations.

Sad it is, that an issue, like the refusal to conform to rules at the Prime Minister’s office concerning cellphones, has led to a breakdown in the government-public sector unions’ dispute. Of far greater importance, was the fact that the scheduled meeting with unions should NEVER have been about wages for public employees, which should be the sole authority of negotiations between government and representatives of the unions representing public service workers.

That should have been made plain by the unions from the beginning. The Teachers Union in particular has a collective agreement with government which provides for such negotiations and should insist that it be so. The Public Service Union has a predicament since it has yet to demonstrate majority support as required under our laws. It is of course no excuse for government to ignore its leadership, since it is still the only body which purports to represent public workers. What it does say is that the leadership of the PSU must get its priorities right and recognize that it is critical to do the hard work necessary to achieve collective bargaining status. The Police Welfare Association is unfortunately not a trade union.

I find it strange that in the circumstances, those three bodies, or at least the leadership, absconded from their responsibility to attend the meeting, put forward their views and strongly represent the interests of their members. At the same time whatever agreement the leaders of the other two unions which attended the meeting had with the outcome, they are in no position, have no authority, to speak on behalf of teachers and public servants. As experienced trade union leaders, both will concur with this conclusion. I am therefore flabbergasted to hear from the Minister of Finance, the following statement in his Budget presentation:

“In consultation with the responsible and responsive leadership of various labour unions, we forged an agreement for the following salary enhancement…”

However strongly the government feels about what it describes as “irresponsible behaviour” of the leadership of the public service unions, it is THE GOVERNMENT with even broader responsibility, it cannot let union leaders with whom it disagrees, be an excuse for an abdication if its responsibility to the workers of this country. It is not weakness to invite further discussions, it shows strength, and in the case of the Teachers Union, it has the honour of entering a collective agreement. It cannot allow that to be shelved because of relatively minor issues, or to continue to shoot itself in the foot.

We must learn the lessons of history. Every government which has multiple terms in office suffers from the same ailments. This government promised to be a departure from the past. It will not be the proposed programmes and projects so eloquently outlined by Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves which themselves will be the issue, but the degree to which government is prepared to listen to and entertain constructive comments, criticisms and proposals. It will be the implementation process, the growing arrogance of many who feel that they are immune, the continuing placing of wrong people in right positions and the seeming indifference of many, not necessarily Ministers, to realities in the country.
I shall continue in this vein next week.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.