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Divided we fall ...

The first rules to apply when trying to persuade people to change their minds are to pick an issue that is relatively straightforward and then to keep your argument as simple as possible.

The campaign by the Bermuda Industrial Union to overturn the rules governing how employees decide if they wish to continue to be represented by a union fails to adhere to either of these rules.

First, the issue is too abstract. The Government maintains that anyone who is a member of a bargaining unit should have a say in continuing to be represented by a union. The union argues that only those people who are members of the union should.

Workers make their voices heard during the second day of industrial action (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Part of the union’s argument is that members have their full union dues deducted and paid to the union while non-members have the equivalent amount deducted, but half goes to the union as a service fee and half is paid to the charity of the non-member’s choice.

Clearly, this is not a straightforward matter. It is not clear-cut in the way that a wage dispute or an unfair dismissal is. There may be different opinions on these matters, but the issue is understandable.

Saddled with a complex issue, the BIU’s message is unclear and has become less so as Chris Furbert, its president, expanded it from the already complex main issue to calling on David Burt and Jason Hayward to resign as Premier and Minister of Labour respectively if they did not bow to the union’s wishes. Mr Furbert then essentially called for the whole government to go. At the same time, he seems to have made it more about whether he was called back or why he was not told when legislation was going to be tabled than about the issue at hand.

People may have any number of reasons why they do not wish to join a union. Depriving them of the right to vote on whether they wish to be represented by a union in negotiating their pay and benefits is simply wrong.

And it creates the absurdity by which just one person in a collective bargaining unit could decide on union representation against the wishes of 99 hypothetical non-union members.

Of course, there are plenty of workarounds here. Non-members could join the union for one year and then cast a vote to decertify. But there should be no need for workarounds. The rules on this should be simple and easy to understand.

But by the same token, a union that is voted out of a workplace should surely look in the mirror when deciding who to blame rather than trying to game the system in order to be a permanent, immoveable fixture.

It is possible that a nefarious employer could somehow persuade a majority of employees to decertify, but if employees were wholly satisfied with their representation they would be much more likely to stick with the union and to be immune to the admonishments of such an employer.

The BIU’s leadership consists of seasoned negotiators. They know when they have a winning argument and when they don’t. This does not seem like a winning argument.

And that does not even get into the costs to the country of this non-labour dispute. People have missed work. Transport has been denied to the people who cannot afford private transport and to the visitors who help Bermuda to survive. Others services have been curtailed. But that does not seem to matter, as Mr Furbert has made this a personal dispute.

Walter Roban, when Acting Premier in Mr Burt’s absence, has noted that this is, or should be, a disagreement over policy. That alone would be difficult when it is a “family” disagreement, but when the BIU not only called for the policy to be overturned but for Mr Burt and Mr Hayward to resign, it became much more than that.

Perhaps Mr Furbert has good reason to believe that Mr Burt and his Cabinet’s position is weaker than it would seem to be on its face, or he is trying a very bold bluff.

To be sure, Mr Burt and some his Cabinet ministers are not universally loved. At times, they can come across as arrogant and all-knowing. Even if you are the smartest person in the room, others don’t necessarily want or need to be reminded of it.

So there is some dissatisfaction within the Progressive Labour Party. Some MPs, notably Jamahl Simmons, have been vocal about issues such as school closures and whether the PLP is doing enough to help those in need. The presence of Derrick Burgess and Zane DeSilva at the BIU yesterday was not accidental.

But within the PLP, Mr Burt is a proven winner who led the party to two election victories, the latter producing a record majority. And there is also the question of who would replace him in the event he was ousted. There is no single candidate who stands out as a likely challenger.

This summer of discontent may be designed to weaken Mr Burt and to lay the ground for a future challenge.

If that’s true, it seems a risky strategy. Tony Blair, who led the British Labour Party to three consecutive General Election victories, was not universally loved in his party, especially by those on the far Left. And when he departed, few tears were shed, especially after the Iraq war. But it is worth noting that Labour has not won a General Election since.

The PLP should not assume that just because it has won five of the past six elections, that it will always win. The public dislike unstable and divided governments.

Just as Mr Furbert is warning the PLP not to take its grass roots for granted — and he is right to a point — he should beware that these kinds of internal disputes have a way of metastasising to the point where they cannot be healed. Mr Burt and Mr Furbert should take note.

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Published September 01, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated August 31, 2021 at 8:23 pm)

Divided we fall ...

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