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Defiant union boss invokes spirit of 1981

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Chris Furbert invoked the spirit of the 1981 General Strike and warned Government “to be careful what you ask for” as he hit back at proposed changes to labour regulations.

Bermuda Industrial Union workers will meet today to discuss the controversial move, which would make wildcat strikes by public transportation workers illegal.

Some disruption of public transport is likely as unionised Marine and Ports workers, along with Public Transport staff, are set to meet between 11am and 1pm to debate the amendments placing public transportation on the list of essential services.

Under the law, wildcat strikes in these areas would become illegal and 21 days' notice would be required before industrial action.

The surprise move, which BIU president Chris Furbert said amounted to a bid to take away workers' rights, marked a new low in relations between the union and the ruling One Bermuda Alliance.

“The relationship we were building with the OBA Government, particularly the Minister of Home Affairs, from my point of view now, is broken,” Mr Furbert said. “Because the level of trust for me is not there anymore.”

The BIU head said he'd been alerted of Home Affairs Minister Michael Fahy's intention to table the Labour Relations Amendment Act just two days before the bill went before MPs on Friday.

“We started to have monthly meetings with the Minister, like we were having with the PLP government. From my point of view now, I sent (Home Affairs Permanent Secretary) Randy Rochester an e-mail saying to him that the monthly meetings are finished.

“They are finished. And that's a broken down relationship,” Mr Furbert said. “Why? Because the Minister has decided ‘no matter what the BIU says to me, I'm tabling this' — so he has a different agenda altogether.

“I'm not feeling it in any way, shape or form. It's not going to happen.”

Describing strikes as “a last resort”, Mr Furbert added: “You can't take away peoples' rights — their rights to organise and their rights to have collective bargaining.”

But Mr Fahy said the issue had been raised with the BIU “numerous times in the last year” as part of regular discussions and had been two weeks ago discussed again at the Labour Advisory Council.

Mr Fahy added: “It is important to note that the Government is not trying to remove the workers' ability to withdraw services should they not be satisfied with any progress related to a dispute.

“Government is simply looking to add public transport as an essential service which requires a 21-day notice period prior to the withdrawal of labour.

“The 21-day notice period represents a ‘cooling off' period which provides management and the union an opportunity to resolve their grievances prior to escalating the matter.”

He questioned whether other categories, such as garbage collection, would be added to the list — and likened it to be similar moves considered by UK Prime Minister David Cameron to have the London Underground classified as an essential service.

Mr Furbert said the bill could go before MPs in today's Parliamentary session, adding: “And it's probably going to pass. That is very concerning to the BIU.”

The meeting was said to be purely for discussion, and Mr Furbert didn't elaborate on possible further actions.

However, he invoked the Island's historic general strike of the Spring of 1981, telling yesterday's press conference: “The Minister thinks that you can legislate peoples' behaviour.

“You know what? In 1981, we had the legislation on the books about essential services. But when we had to demonstrate in 1981, people had had enough.

“They said, ‘you know what? I don't care what the Government wants; I've had enough and I'm not taking it any more'.

“So whilst I do understand the need to curb peoples' behaviour, you just need to be careful what you ask for.”

The schedule of essential services in the 1975 Labour Relations Act was seen by the union as “taking away the rights of workers”, Mr Furbert said.

“We see this an another form of taking away workers' rights, the right to strike.”

That view is shared by the United Nations' International Labour Organisation, he said, which does not classify transport as an essential service.

Mr Furbert conceded that disruptions to transportation, which hit the Island twice last month, was “a bit of inconvenience”, but continued: “We don't take it lightly when we have to drop tools. It's sad, in 2014, that it took what it took the other day for the employer at Hamilton Princess to come to their senses.

“It shouldn't have taken that. And when the issue of Marine and Ports and Parks came up the other day, and their concerns about management's behaviour — this whole thing, this second incident, was about mismanagement.”

He said he was engaged in “a conversation with members about work ethic”, stressing that union meetings ended with staff returning to work more than half the time.

“Not every time do we decide we're going to walk out. Can we have a conversation about whether that happens less often? Maybe we can have that conversation. But that's still a decision for the membership to make.”

Mr Furbert also said the BIU had considered offering a partial schedule of public transport to ensure that “when we're having a general meeting, instead of interrupting the whole service, maybe the main arteries continue to run”.

BIU president Chris Furbert speaks during a press conference today following Government's proposal to add public transport to the list of essential services. Photo by Glenn Tucker

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Published March 05, 2014 at 8:00 am (Updated March 05, 2014 at 9:13 am)

Defiant union boss invokes spirit of 1981

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