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Few signs of progress in growing standoff

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A protester encapsulates the feeling of the hundreds of BTUC marchers who are camped outside Cabinet (Photo by Jonathan Bell)

Union leaders and supporters continued their protest on the grounds of Cabinet last night as their dispute with Government, over furloughs for public service employees, broadened significantly.

Although two days of meetings and marches have disrupted many government services, and emotions have run high, an almost celebratory mood prevailed on the lawns outside Cabinet yesterday.

However, it was confirmed that unionised public service workers had been told that morning that they would be docked pay if they did not report to their jobs — and Government put workers on formal notice, as public concern grew over the potential for all-out strikes.

The Bermuda Trade Union Congress (BTUC), whose big-hitting members include the Bermuda Industrial Union, Bermuda Public Services Union and Bermuda Union of Teachers, is demanding that an alternative be found to furlough days for civil service workers.

“Here is where it gets real,” Jason Hayward, the BPSU president, told members as a crowd gathered in Union Square yesterday at 9am.

“They’ve threatened us already with an e-mail: ‘come to the meeting and you will get deducted pay’. I want to make an apology to the members — yesterday we made a huge mistake. We sent you back to work and they betrayed us. We’re not going to make that mistake again.”

Mr Hayward was referring to Monday’s agreement by union representatives to accept a return to negotiations, only for the emergency meetings not to go ahead. After that meeting foundered, BIU president Chris Furbert declared that further talks would not proceed until Government suspended furloughs as an option — although he added that the union was not calling on Government to “throw it away for ever”.

Several thousand marchers subsequently proceeded to Cabinet, where Mr Hayward declared from the steps of the Cenotaph: “Once we enter those gates, we are not leaving until furlough is off the table. There is no turning back now.”

Chanting “enough is enough”, crowds filed inside, while onlookers lined the streets.

Premier Michael Dunkley and his Cabinet came out from the building to greet and thank them, but the Premier struggled to make himself heard over an increasingly irate crowd.

“Let me make it very clear,” Mr Dunkley said. “While we understand your concerns, there are bigger concerns in the community.”

Raising his voice, he went on: “We need to do everything we can to protect your jobs and make Government sustainable going forward.”

Mr Dunkley closed: “When you are ready, we are ready.”

Calling for quiet, Mr Furbert was cheered when he reiterated the union stand. “We will not come back to the table until furlough days are removed,” he said. Several religious leaders addressed the crowd, with Rev Nicholas Tweed declaring that labour and the clergy would always stand together.

Rev Tweed added: “When a Government can find money to give payroll tax exemptions, but can’t find money for education; when a Government can find money for the America’s Cup but can’t find money to keep workers working, we say something is wrong. We say it’s time to put people first.”

Drumming and singing continued throughout the day as the crowd kept their spirits up, but there were no further addresses from the Premier.

Earlier in the day, Mr Furbert remarked that the situation “reminds me of David Gibbons back in 1981” — a reference to the Premier at the time of the biggest mass strikes in the Island’s history.

The crowds of BTUC membership wait outside Cabinet (Photo by Jonathan Bell)
Marchers make their way along Front Street to the Cabinet Building (Photo by Owain Johnston-Barnes)
Marchers make their way along Front Street to the Cabinet Building (Photo by Owain Johnston-Barnes)
Unions gather for a second day of talks over furlough days (Photo by Jonathan Bell)
Unions gather for a second day of talks over furlough days (Photo by Jonathan Bell)