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Scores of Customs officers quit BPSU

More than 50 Bermuda Customs staff have quit the Bermuda Public Services Union, in hopes of joining the Bermuda Industrial Union.

BPSU executive members blamed the split on a misunderstanding of union law.

BIU president Chris Furbert said he was not able to comment on the matter.

BPSU first vice president Jason Hayward said that in the past week the union has been “flooded with calls from members trying to understand what is going on with the Customs officers”.

“A number of our members have been asking us what the devil’s going on,” BPSU general secretary Ed Ball said.

According to the BPSU, the crux of the dispute is in job benefits.

Customs officials have called for parity with police officers on issues such as pensions and early retirement. BPSU assistant general secretary Orin Simmons summed it up as “pay parity with police”.

The exodus began when Government announced in March that a Border Control Agency was to be established. Starting on April 1, the National Security Ministry began to take over the enforcement side of Customs which, as a fee-collecting agency, has traditionally operated under the Ministry of Finance.

Mr Hayward said that a faction within Customs have seen the BCA “as an opportunity for a split”.

He added: “We find that in these times, it’s no secret that unions are trying to get as many members as they can. But the legislation does not support their move.”

Now the BPSU’s leadership say they want to put the matter behind them.

The union says that, under law, the BPSU is the only agency entitled to bargain on behalf of civil servants, and that Customs officers will not have any bargaining rights under the BIU.

“It’s a norm that when members of unions can’t get their executive or general council to carry out their demands, they seek other unions,” Mr Ball said. “We tell them to go back to their own unions. We’re not going to play one union against another.”

He added: “The Trade Union Act, 1965, makes it very clear. The BPSU is the bargaining agent.”

Mr Hayward said the union has reached out successfully to many officers who left the BPSU: “Initially 101 officers left; 40 percent have returned,” he said.

BPSU executive members said the customs workers failed the appreciate the complexity of benefits negotiations.

Mr Simmons explained: “In terms of negotiation, the majority of Customs officers recognise that there is a process, and a lengthy one, that goes through Government. We are continually in consultation with the Customs leadership and we operate in an atmosphere of transparency as a matter of course. Pensions are a major, major issue, and you can’t just push it through and achieve instant results. Our primary concern in this economic crisis is job retention.”

BPSU president Kevin Grant stressed that the union would address the concerns of all its members, saying: “It’s not that we don’t want to represent these Customs officials. We have always sought to give full representation.”

However, when asked what the union’s next move would be, Mr Grant said: “We are moving on from this. There is no issue. We are covered by the Act; that’s the law.”

Mr Grant said anyone in Bermuda had the constitutional right to join whatever union they pleased, but bargaining rights were a matter of legislation.

He said the split in the BPSU “probably comes down to a misunderstanding of what the Trade Union Act says” while Mr Ball attributed some of the breaking away to “peer pressure” by some of the dissenting Customs officers.

Mr Ball added: “At this point, it’s a non-issue. We will do what we can to try and get members to come back, but the members we have, we will serve.”

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Published August 11, 2011 at 2:00 am (Updated August 11, 2011 at 9:31 am)

Scores of Customs officers quit BPSU

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