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Teachers walkout not illegal, says lawyer

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Show of force: public-school teachers marched on Parliament last week to press their demands with their union, the Bermuda Union of Teachers

Teachers are unlikely to face court action over a walkout last week, a lawyer said yesterday.

John Hindess, a senior associate at Marshal Diel & Myers, said the question of legality came down to what the motives were for the industrial action, which led to public schools across the island being closed last Friday.

Mr Hindess said: “Simply put, the answer is it depends on what the purpose of the strike was.

“If it was for any reason other than to further a labour dispute in their industry, or if it was designed to coerce the Government, then it was illegal.”

He added: “It appears that the purpose was to further a labour dispute and even if it was designed to coerce the Government, it will not be a breach if the purpose was to alter or maintain the terms of employment of the strikers.”

Mr Hindess said that the Labour Relations Act 1975, and particularly section 34, governed industrial action.

He added that, because teachers were not “an essential service” under the Act, they did not have to comply with special rules, including a requirement to give notice of a lockout, strike or industrial action.

Mr Hindess said: “As such, if the strike was for the purpose of furthering a labour dispute and more particularly, to merely alter or maintain the terms of the teachers’ employment, then it was not illegal.”

Mr Hindess added that people who took part in illegal industrial action could be imprisoned for up to two years, fined up to $2,000, or both.

But he said: “I do not anticipate there will be any action taken against the teachers as a result.”

Teachers did not turn up for work on Friday after an emergency meeting was called by the Bermuda Union of Teachers.

Shannon James, the president of the BUT, said afterwards that the union had voted to demand a meeting with leaders of the education department to discuss a number of problems, including contracts, job evaluations and a lack of teaching assistants.

He added that low enrolment and staffing problems at Elliot Primary School, Devonshire, and the reopening of TN Tatem Middle School in Warwick, which was closed due to mould problems in April, were also on the agenda.

A spokeswoman for the education ministry said last Friday that the ministry had been told that teachers would not go back to work until a meeting was held with Diallo Rabain, the education minister, and other officials.

The meeting was held later that day and the BUT confirmed on Sunday that teachers would be back in the classroom yesterday.

Asked if he viewed the strike as illegal and if teachers would be paid for last Friday, Mr Rabain said the ministry had fielded “an influx of inquiries regarding pay for teachers in light of actions taken by the BUT on Friday”.

Mr Rabain said: “The head of the public service is the final determinant of matters regarding industrial action pay, and therefore, is the governing body regarding compensation for teachers on May 31, 2019.”

Teachers gather at Sessions House (Photograph by Akil Simmons)