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Bus drivers back to work

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The eight-week bus dispute is to be settled by independent arbitration after transport and union bosses failed to thrash out an agreement.

With the arbitration process now underway, drivers have had to end their two-day strike and return to work.

From “first light” today all normal bus services will resume and the Department of Public Transportation (DPT) and the Bermuda Industrial Union (BIU) will have to accept the decision of independent judges.

The arbitration tribunal, which is expected to take place in the next couple of weeks, will rule whether Government was right to fire bus driver Jennifer Harvey for failing to take a drugs test after an accident, which injured a passenger.

The arbitration process was agreed during an hour-long meeting between BIU president Chris Furbert, Premier Paula Cox and a handful of Cabinet Ministers yesterday morning. The last-minute crunch meeting was requested by the BIU in a bid to bring the controversial bus strike to an end.

Mr Furbert hopes the arbitration will “bring resolution” adding that he wants to “try to get the country back to normal”.

He believes the union has “an excellent case” and agreed to the arbitration on condition that Ms Harvey receives backdated pay. She remains out of a job, but she will be paid for the period of suspension until termination.

While Ms Cox said it was her priority to have the matter referred to a tribunal, as “public safety and public interest issues are key”.

She told the BIU delegation that “the key and fundamental issue” was to get the bus operators back to work as soon as possible. The bus strike, which began on Wednesday, received widespread opposition from the public with people rallying round to offer rides to stranded bus passengers. An online petition titled Bermudians Against BIU Strike Action also attracted more than 1,600 signatures.

But Mr Furbert has criticised the public for being quick to judge the striking bus drivers. He said the public had hurt their feelings without knowing all the facts. Government had accused Ms Harvey of “gross insubordination” saying she must take a drugs test before returning to work.

But on the advice of union officials, she refused repeated requests to take a hair follicle drug test because the collective agreement only contains provision for urine testing.

Transport and union bosses will both put their sides across at the arbitration, which is expected to take place behind closed doors. However, Mr Furbert said public had a right to know what has happened and he would make the report and result public “whether we win or lose”.

He said: “The union is in favour of open arbitrations. We have absolutely nothing to hide. We hope the arbitration will help clarify things for the public”.

Workers had planned to march from the BIU headquarters on Union Street to Cabinet yesterday afternoon.

Many of them had made placards emblazoned with slogans such as: ‘workers demand respect’ and ‘management need to stop violating our collective agreement’. Another sign read: ‘Bermuda is another world, but we are not going back to the 1960s.’

Mr Furbert said Transport Minister Terry Lister had e-mailed him at 7.30pm on Thursday requesting a meeting at 9.30am yesterday.

But Mr Furbert said the meeting was “a waste of time” and just an hour and a half later Mr Furbert met the Premier.

Up to about 40 bus drivers and mechanics, most of them in their uniforms, headed to the union building first thing yesterday morning. Many of them then came outside to wave off Mr Furbert as he headed to Cabinet at about 11am.

At about 12.15pm Mr Furbert summoned all the workers inside and gave a briefing on the arbitration process. Cheers and loud applause could be heard from the meeting room before the workers left in high-spirits.

Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Kim Wilson officially referred the dispute to be settled at an independent tribunal under Section 4 of the Labour Disputes Act 1992.

However, workers did not immediately return to work as it “took some time to make sure the buses were safe to be back on the road”.

Commuters at the Hamilton bus Terminal yesterday expressed relief the strike was coming to an end, but many said they were still unhappy with drivers.

Shannon Looby of Happy Valley said: “We didn’t all need to suffer because of one person. She should have just taken the test.”

Mr Furbert said there had not been many BIU official comments on the bus dispute because he was the “one and only spokesperson” and he had been away on family business.

He then criticised

The Royal Gazette for its reporting of the bus dispute and warned Bermudians to “make their decisions on the facts”.

Mr Furbert accused people of being too quick to jump to conclusions without thinking about the feelings of bus drivers, as well as their families and friends.

He said: “Everyone is quick to criticise but I’d ask them to step back and take a few minutes to look at the facts before condemning the bus drivers.

“The public has a right to their opinion but they should watch what they say as these bus operators have feelings also”.

He added: “People are getting lost in the stars and moon, they don’t know the facts”.

Mr Furbert said people didn’t have the right to judge the BIU over this dispute as they were “standing up for social justice”.

He said: “We do it and we do it better than any other organisation that I know.

“The employer was trying to mistreat one of our members … when you look at all the evidence, it points to mismanagement.

“They did not follow policy and procedure, they chose to ignore everything”.

He added: “If people think they are going to bust the BIU, I have got news for them. We are here for ever and ever and ever”.

Mr Furbert also hit back at claims that the union hadn’t served notice before going on strike, saying: “we gave you enough notice”.

He said he hoped people would have “read between the lines” to work out a strike was on the cards. He added that the BIU gave Government 24 hours to reinstate Ms Harvey last week, then another 24 hours on Monday.

Mr Furbert accepted mistakes were made on both sides, then went on to criticise Mr Lister for discussing Ms Harvey’s precontract agreement consenting to any type of drug test deemed necessary.

He said he had made it “crystal clear” to the Premier that they were questioning the validity of this document, as it had not been cleared by the BIU.

Mr Furbert said the BIU had “so many issues about how they are behaving at DPT” that he wanted to set up a board of inquiry on the DPT.

However the Premier rejected this idea yesterday.

Shadow Transport Minister Patricia Gordon-Pamplin said going to arbitration was “the right thing to do”.

She said: “It is unfortunate the situation was allowed to degenerate to a strike that inconvenienced many and hurt the Island’s reputation.

“It was avoidable, as the Government’s referral of the dispute to a tribunal, makes clear.

“We hope going forward all parties learn from this experience. Best results are achieved through good communication, a sincere search for common ground and respect for the national interest”.

United Bermuda Party leader Kim Swan agreed that sending the bus dispute to an arbitration tribunal “makes eminent good sense”.

He said: “The decision now brings to an end the disruption for local commuters and our all important tourist, both who have been sorely inconvenienced.

“The decision by the Bermuda Government, to refer the two-day bus strike to an arbitration tribunal, is a decision we consider to be sensible, made in the greater national interest and a decision which will enable Bermuda to return to a semblance of normality”.

Tourism and Transport Minister Terry Lister (left) exits the Cabinet Building as Bermuda Industrial Union president Chris Furbert (second from right) addresses the media and other BIU officials look on. The group had just completed an hour-long meeting, agreeing to arbitration on the dismissal of a Public Transportation Board driver for refusing to take a drug test in the wake of an accident in which a passenger was injured. The agreement ended a three-day strike of public bus drivers.
Two bus operators report back to work yesterday morning, as they greet one another with a hug, both standing up in what they believe is right.
Bus drivers outside BIU Headquarters, after their morning meeting with Union representatives.(Photo by Akil Simmons)

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Published August 20, 2011 at 9:00 am (Updated August 20, 2011 at 8:15 am)

Bus drivers back to work

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