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Government needs to stand firm on strike threat

All employees in a bargaining unit should have the right to vote on continued union representation (File photograph)

The Bermuda Industrial Union is threatening to hold a two-day strike next week over the issue of whether an employee has the right to decide on continuing to be represented by a trade union, regardless if that employee is a union member or not.

The threatened strike has more than a hint of desperation about it.

The average member of the public must be mystified that the BIU is prepared to hold the island to ransom over an arcane issue that has more to do with self-preservation than democracy or what is in the best interests of Bermuda’s workers.

It is especially confusing after almost two years in which many Bermudians have suffered lost earnings and hardship as a result of the pandemic.

At stake is the question of whether an employee of a company who is not unionised but who is represented by the union as part of a bargaining unit has the right to vote on whether the bargaining unit should continue to be represented by the union.

As this newspaper has stated before, this seems fair and democratic. The parallel is a General Election in which only supporters of an incumbent government are allowed to vote.

The union is arguing that because non-union members are required to give only half their dues to the union, they should not be able to vote. It is worth noting, though, that the other half of the dues do not remain in the worker’s pocket but is given to charity.

However, as the Government has stated: “The decertification ballot is a workplace ballot administered by the Government in the interest of workers and is not a union ballot. As such, the Government must consider the rights of the workers within the bargaining unit above and beyond the interests of the union(s).”

So the union is on poor ground to begin with. The Bermuda Public Service Union seems to have recognised this and has already accepted the amendment. Whether other unions will heed the BIU’s call remains to be seen. So far they have been very quiet.

More broadly, it would appear that the BIU’s best defence against this change is to ensure that employees in bargaining units it represents are satisfied with the union’s performance.

If they are, both in terms of contract negotiations and in workplace disputes, then the union should have little to worry about. And yet the union does seem to be worried; so much so, it is willing to force an island-wide work stoppage.

It may be that the union sees that confidence in the Government has been shaken in recent months and it wishes to take advantage of this.

BIU president Chris Furbert has been vocal in his view that the Progressive Labour Party has lost touch with its labour movement roots.

This may come as a surprise to Jason Hayward, a former president of the BPSU and now the labour minister. In fact, the new trade union legislation and the reforms to the Employment Act are generally labour-friendly.

But the unwillingness of the Government to give in to bus drivers’ demands last week and the firmness of its stance so far on this suggests two things:

The first is that the Government is facing an unprecedented economic crisis and does not have the financial luxury of giving way on issues such as this. Where in past periods of strong revenues and full employment it could have afforded to give way, there is no room for error.

The second issue ties in with the first. It is easy in Opposition to call for pro-labour laws and to demand that money be spent without regard to where the money must come from. But governing requires a different calculus, and a more sober one.

Mr Hayward, David Burt, the Premier, and Curtis Dickinson, the finance minister, must get people back to work and get government revenues pumping again or they will face economic disaster.

As a result, hard decisions need to be made. Employers will not hire if they conclude that they cannot afford the risk, and this includes being held to ransom by trade unions.

And if employers will not hire, then jobs will not be created. Something has to give.

The Government deserves credit for standing its ground on this issue, and with the bus drivers, although it is possible to be a little more sympathetic to the bus drivers who are grappling with longstanding problems, which go back at least three governments.

No doubt, Mr Furbert will ratchet up the pressure this week. The Government needs to stand firm.

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Published August 24, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated August 24, 2021 at 10:06 am)

Government needs to stand firm on strike threat

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