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Signs that sanity is prevailing in bus dispute

A free minibus service has replaced public buses after public transport staff withdrew their labour amid fears over Covid-19 (File photograph by Aki Simmons)

It looked like the dispute that has taken the public bus service off the road for the past 12 days was coming to an end last night. It is not before time.

There are and were no winners in this deadlock.

The bus drivers had moved from cutting off their noses to other body parts to spite their faces, giving up up more than a week’s pay in order to get three days’ wages.

Chris Furbert, the Bermuda Industrial Union president, had argued that this was about principle, and that the union had to hold the line.

But if the drivers had as good case as the BIU believed, then they should have been confident that they would be successful before a labour tribunal, regardless of whether this was a labour dispute or a health and safety issue.

It may well be that the drivers do indeed have a case. In the face of rising cases of the Delta variant and with 30 workers off duty because of either having Covid-19 or having been exposed to it, seeking a deep clean of the buses and the depots would seem reasonable to many.

It may also be that management felt differently; a complete shutdown of the service might not have been necessary when the deep cleans could have been staged in different ways. This might also have been an opportune time to encourage unvaccinated drivers to get the jab.

In fact, the Government had fallen back on the old saw, at least in part, that the drivers did not follow the correct procedure in asking for the buses to be deep-cleaned. For many, this will have come across as overly bureaucratic in the middle of a crisis.

Regardless of who turns out to be in the right, the strike has gone on long enough. There was one issue at stake and both sides were refusing to budge. Both needed to accept a third-party decision.

In that sense, the news that the bus service should resume today is welcome.

More broadly, it could not have been in the interests of the BIU or the Progressive Labour Party to be warring over this issue or the more arcane issue of decertification.

The longer this issue lasted, the more it would give ammunition to the idea that this dispute was more about internal PLP politics than the issue at hand.

The Premier, David Burt, had already made that assertion with regard to the decertification issue. But he, more than most, would have been aware that seeing the union bringing the island to a standstill over an internal political problem, or the Government being unable to exercise any influence over its supposed labour movement partner, was a vote loser, diminishing confidence in the PLP’s ability to govern for all.

Equally, the sight of a labour government hiring private buses to lay on services usually provided by unionised drivers would alienate the political base of the PLP.

The PLP government risks losing out at both ends of the political spectrum. The moderate swing voters who gave Mr Burt his massive electoral margin in 2020 would have been deterred by the sight of the BIU withdrawing services and marching in the streets at the same time that the PLP’s base would have been appalled at the sight of “scab” labour replacing striking workers.

The PLP has long claimed it is better able to manage labour disputes than the more conservative One Bermuda Alliance because it is trusted by the unions. That claim is looking increasingly hollow now.

The labour movement has long adhered to the maxim “united we stand, divided we fall”. Even if the drivers to return to work today, it is clear that the labour movement is thoroughly divided.

Nor should it be forgotten who the real losers were in this imbroglio: the disadvantaged and those who have no private transport who must depend on buses to get around. It is not the rich or the car owners who are being hurt now, but those the labour movement is supposedly most committed to helping.

If there is a sort of inverted silver lining in all of this, it is that visitors, the other group of people who regularly use buses, are limited in numbers now, and that children are distance learning. That took away some of the union’s leverage, but also reduced the pain.

It is good to see that both sides have recognised that when no one is winning, it is time to end the fight.

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Published September 30, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated September 29, 2021 at 8:40 pm)

Signs that sanity is prevailing in bus dispute

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