Thursday, March 8, 2012

On the eve of a general election, sleeping trade unions in The Bahamas awaken... and suddenly take notice of ‘the plight of their membership

More union action as general election looms

By Taneka Thompson
Guardian Senior Reporter

Nassau, The Bahamas

It never fails. On the eve of an election, sleeping trade unions in the country awaken and suddenly take notice of ‘the plight of their membership’. It is almost as perennial as the grass. They carry on about agreements that have been languishing at the negotiation table for years, company bosses who ignore them and a government that moves too slow. They summon the media to announce, time after time, that they are about to resort to industrial action to shut the country or a business down.

The truth is that these worn tactics – in the face of the global economic downturn and changing dynamics in the demand for labor worldwide – are becoming increasingly dangerous for the union’s members. Unionists have to, more than ever, work with employers, certainly to protect the ‘rights of the working man’ but also to ensure that this same man has work to go to the next day. No one can force a business to keep its doors open and no one would blame someone for closing up shop if that shop was not profitable. And as the events of the past few years have shown us, there is no such thing as a company too big to close its doors.

The most talked about issue over the social networks over the past few days was the nine-day closure of KFC. While many disgruntled customers joked about the lengths they would go to get their hands on a ‘two piece spicy meal’, the human element of the situation was glossed over. During the closure KFC executives said they would not pay staff, who they accused of engaging in ‘illegal’ industrial action on February 20.

For the 300 employees of KFC who sat in limbo, reporting to work every day under the union’s orders only to the find doors locked, there was more at stake than getting a fix of the Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices. They were forced to loiter outside the company’s nine Nassau locations, chatting amongst themselves, some with children on their laps or underfoot. Many of KFC’s employees are single mothers with, as a few of them told me, two and three ‘deadbeat baby daddies’. Unsure of when the next paycheck was coming in, some workers applied for the dole, desperate for emergency food stamps to feed their families.

Luckily for them, the standoff between the union and their employer was brief. After a series of negotiations mediated by Labor Minister Dion Foulkes, both sides came to an agreement over the terms of a new contract and stores opened on February 29. But the tentative contract terms contain reduced benefits for new employees and some concessions, albeit with expiration dates, for current employees.  And those employees are today without a week’s pay.

The unions overextended their hand and underestimated the lengths their opponent would go to prove his point. The franchise owner of KFC Nassau, George Myers, doesn’t need the doors of the chicken restaurant to be open to put food on his table – the union’s members do.

George Smith, former Cabinet minister and a good friend of Myers told The Nassau Guardian that Myers was ‘pushed too far’.

“We (the country) are having economic problems. They (the union) should have said, ‘Look, when the economy turns around can we revisit these things and set some benchmarks for when the economy improves?’ They know that their union isn’t about to supplement those people but [executives at KFC] know they could afford to hold out for a long period of time. I assure you, George Myers used the time to give his top people holidays and clean the place up a bit,” Smith said.

The only resort chain in The Bahamas to have two proprieties on two different islands, Sandals, faced recent union drama of its own. There was no actual industrial action taken by current employees of the Sandals Royal Bahamian, the resort’s property on New Providence. During the whole ordeal, I wondered what would have happened if in fact there was a walkout of workers at the property. Chairman of Sandals Resorts International Gordon “Butch” Stewart just invested $20 million in the refurbishment of a block of rooms at Sandals Royal Bahamian and millions more expanding his current holdings at Emerald Bay in Exuma.

His general manager in Exuma, Jeremy Mutton, recently spoke about the cost of running a resort on the out island. His son and CEO, Adam Stewart, has said that Emerald Bay will not be profitable until at least 2014. Royal Bahamian General Manager Patrick Drake is on record referencing the high cost of utilities in Nassau.

Gordon Stewart is essentially the sole proprietor of the multi-billion-dollar company. He has no shareholders, no board of directors to consult if either property does not make money. It is not out of the realm of possibility that he could one day pick up his marbles and leave. No one does business in The Bahamas – whether they are local or a foreign investor – because they think Bahamians are cute. They do so to make money. Let’s not fool ourselves; unions are a business as well too. They make money from the salaries paid to their members. Pushing an employer so far that he would rather close the doors of his business is like a parasite killing its host.

Labor unions have always had to negotiate in the context of the economic realities in which businesses and the employees who work in these establishments exist. As the world attempts to rebound from the worst global recession since the Great Depression, they have been focused on keeping the doors of businesses open and securing their members’ jobs. Nowhere is this truer than in the United States.

The Washington Times reported that according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, major work stoppages — situations when 1,000 workers or more go on strike or are locked out — dropped 95 percent in 2009 compared with the previous year. This is the lowest level since the U.S. government began keeping a tally in the 1940s, the Washington Times said.

Even the mighty automobile unions of Detroit, in order to save the jobs of their members who are employees of General Motors and Chrysler, agreed to no-strike clauses which expire in 2015 as conditions of the government bailout.

However, here at home it seems the threats, and sometimes follow through, of work stoppages have not gone dormant because of the recession. Union leaders continue to threaten to withdraw labor and shut down essential services.

It’s not much of a stretch to say that the trade union movement has been flexing its muscles recently because of the looming general election. Union leaders, and their members, know that politicians will say and do anything to quell any discord that could derail their political ambitions.

“Unions tend to try to get what is duly, rightfully theirs at this time in the political season because over the past years unions have not been getting their fair share before elections. So if it takes a union this period of time to save their problems until now, then there you have it,” said Dwayne Woods, president of the Bahamas Utility Service and Allied Workers Union (BUSAWU), which represents workers at the Water and Sewerage Corporation.

“It doesn’t mean that they are not entitled, and it doesn’t mean that they are being political. Whatever is going on here is non-partisan and non-political. I don’t play games; [these are] the wishes of the membership,” Woods added.

A few dozen of his members protested and withdrew their labor for at least two days last week. They were pressuring government to immediately address a list of labor concerns, including the regularization of several contracted workers, some of whom had been working with WSC for 11 years, and who did not enjoy the same benefits as permanent workers. The union is also pushing for the corporation to revisit its ‘unfair’ promotion policies; pay separation packages to workers made redundant after government ended its practice of water barging from Andros, and rehire two employees who were recently let go from the corporation or pay them severance packages.

Over the last few months, unions representing Customs and Immigration officers, air traffic controllers and the public service have also been agitating against government to address their issues – or face industrial action.

Labor Minister Dion Foulkes said while some unions do have genuine concerns, it is no coincidence that they have ramped up their efforts to conclude trade disputes as the next election draws nearer.

“It does seem that some of the unions are using the election season as leverage in their negotiations. Some of the issues that have come forward have been very legitimate issues by the various unions. Some of the matters have been in negotiation for quite some time and they are just coincidentally coming to head at the same time when the next elections are due.

“It seems to be there may be some political motivation behind the actions by some unions, but the public will have to draw their own conclusions from the facts presented,” Foulkes said.

Mar 05, 2012