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BIU digs in its heels

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Bermuda’s bus strike continued last night, with union officials standing firm despite mounting pressure on drivers to return to work.

Bermuda Industrial Union [BIU] Leader Chris Furbert said he was planning urgent meetings with Government.

“I want to try to resolve this issue and if it takes me until midnight tonight to resolve it, I’ll do that. We want to make sure we get the operators back to work,” he pledged.

However, he said of Government: “If they decide to dig their heels in on this situation, they will be very unfortunate. I don’t see why they should want to dig their heels in on it.”

Premier Paula Cox later issued a statement saying it is important “for the Government and the union to work together so that the buses resume service to the public as quickly as possible”.

Bus operators downed tools at rush hour on Wednesday after driver Jennifer Harvey was fired for “gross insubordination”. She repeatedly refused to take a drugs test after an accident that left a passenger injured on June 24.

The union says correct drug testing policy was not followed and Ms Harvey should be reinstated with no loss of pay.

“From day one, the policy was not followed,” insisted Mr Furbert yesterday. “The Department of Public Transportation and Ministry had better come to their senses and they’d better come to their senses in a hurry because this situation is serious. You cannot treat our members like this.”

He was addressing a press conference at the Bermuda Industrial Union’s Hamilton headquarters. Around 80 bus drivers also attended the meeting, and offered loud support each time Mr Furbert made a point.

However, he admitted not all bus drivers support the industrial action. He said around 110 workers were present at the vote for strike action, and the “majority” supported the move.

At least one bus driver, Earlston Thompson, disregarded the strike yesterday and continued to transport passengers around the Island [see separate story]. Minister of Transport Terry Lister urged drivers who wish to carry on working to report to the Palmetto Road depot.

Mr Furbert said: “You’re going to have a few operators that feel what’s going on is not correct. I just hope tomorrow it’s not them. Because if it is, they won’t get the support of the membership.”

He said the union does not have sanctions against members who ignore strikes, “but this might heighten the need for us to do that, it really might”.

He defended the decision to down tools, despite comments from Minister of Trade and Industry Kim Wilson on Wednesday that labour unrest is damaging the Island’s fragile economy.

Premier Paula Cox made similar comments last night, saying: “I would encourage the bus drivers to return to work. Disruptions like these are harmful to our economy and right now as a country we need to be rowing in the same direction.”

Mr Furbert said: “We can’t have a situation where, because of the recession, employers are going to try to take advantage of our members because of that.”

Asked why the union did not warn of the strike through a 21-day strike notice, Mr Furbert replied: “A 21-day strike notice issued for what? Did the Minister issue a 21-day strike notice that he was going to fire somebody?”

He added: “When the Ministry decided to fire Sister Jennifer ... they fired her on the spot.”

When reporters quizzed him about public criticism of the strike action, he refused to accept the majority of the population is against the BIU’s stance, saying: “There’s 40,000 in the workforce, there’s probably 65,000, 70,000 Bermudians. So unless you can tell me that 35,000 Bermudians have told you that they’re not in favour of the bus thing then don’t say the majority. I’m not taking that”.

The union chief went on to claim the accident that left a passenger injured and sparked transport bosses to demand a drugs test from Ms Harvey, was not her fault.

A Ministry spokeswoman alleged last week that Ms Harvey failed to secure the handbrake of her bus, letting it roll into another bus.

A passenger got their hand trapped and needed hospital treatment.

The Premier said yesterday: “When jobs are at stake it makes it personal, but let’s remember that Bermuda’s core values and principles are also at stake. We must commit to providing reliable and good quality service to the public.

“In particular, public transportation services must be safe. Rules must be followed if locals and visitors are to have confidence in the safety of our buses.”

However, Mr Furbert said of Ms Harvey: “I’m telling you that her bus didn’t move, you know. It’s not rocket science you know. Her bus was on the inside, the other bus on the outside.

“If her bus moved the people in front of her bus was gonna get rolled over. You can take that to the bank.”

A few hours after the press conference, the One Bermuda Alliance repeated calls for the dispute to be sent to an arbitrator, and the strike action suspended.

“The Island is being held to ransom, disrupting thousands of commuters and tourists and damaging the Island’s tourism reputation,” said Shadow Transport Minister Pat Gordon-Pamplin.

“This situation has been allowed to spiral dangerously out of control, far out of proportion to the particulars of the dispute, and we are left to wonder what hidden agendas may be driving the situation.”

Kim Swan of the United Bermuda Party said: “The United Bermuda Party are very concerned about the impact of this strike action by bus operators in the heat of a recession, and when three cruise ships are in Bermuda [this] is sending the wrong message internationally.

“Respectfully, it is our feeling that this matter needs to be referred to arbitration as Bermuda commuters, and our visitors reliant on the public transportation system are being inconvenienced.”

There was no news yesterday in respect of other industrial disputes affecting the Island.

The Bermuda Industrial Union issued a 21-day strike notice on Wednesday on behalf of Corporation of Hamilton workers protesting at the sacking of two colleagues.

Asked for an update yesterday, Corporation Chief Operating Officer Ed Benevides said: “There is no additional information to provide at this time. The City of Hamilton remains committed to a speedy resolution.”

Dockworkers continued their overtime ban while dock managers Stevedoring Services and the BIU worked through issues surrounding a binding arbitration.

Peter Aldrich, general manager of Stevedoring Services said there was no update available.

Prison officers have reportedly threatened to go on strike over what the Prison Officers Association described earlier this week as “sub-human” working conditions.

They are in talks with Government, and Assistant Commissioner of Corrections Keeva Joell-Benjamin said no strike notice had been issued last night.

Government laid on extra ferries yesterday to help commuters who needed to travel between Hamilton and Dockyard.

The times of the St George’s route were changed to help cope with demand.

Plans are in place for a 7.45am ferry departure from St George’s today, to help commuters if the strike continues.

A local sit and wait for the buses, as the buses were a no show yesterday morning. (Photo by Akil Simmons) August 18,2011
Number 4 coming in for duty: Yesterday one bus driver made a stand and decided to return to work.

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Published August 19, 2011 at 2:00 am (Updated August 19, 2011 at 9:33 am)

BIU digs in its heels

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