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Tempers fray as workers march on Parliament

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Around 200 unionised bus and ferry workers marched on Parliament yesterday in protest at Government plans to make public transport an essential service.

Carrying a Bermuda Industrial Union banner and chanting slogans such as “United we stand, divided we fall”, the workers marched through Hamilton before reaching the main entrance of the House of Assembly at around 12.15pm, just before the morning's Parliamentary session adjourned for lunch.

Addressing the media and his members, BIU president Chris Furbert explained that the march was held following a meeting of public transport staff who were “very concerned” by the proposed law.

Under the amendment, which was tabled in the House on Friday, public transport staff will be outlawed from holding wildcat strikes and will instead have to give 21 days notice before taking any industrial action.

Mr Furbert said that, under international labour laws, public transport was not an essential service as it was not “a matter of life and limb”.

“We had a meeting this morning with them and as you can see they are very concerned with the legislation that the (Labour and Home Affairs) Minister tabled on Friday,” Mr Furbert said.

“As you can see the members are very concerned about the legislation, the proposed new legislation and how it's going to take their rights away from them — their right to strike, which is an ILO (International Labour Organisation) document that says that a right to strike is a worker's right to do exactly that.

“When we look at making public transportation an essential service, we don't see the need for that.

“It's not a matter of life and limb, where you look at the reasons why we made all those other services essential back in 1975, whether it was hospitals, whether it was docks, whether it was Telco, whether it was Belco, you look at all those services, those are essential as it relates to life and death situations.

“When we look at public transportation, this is not a life and death situation, so we're wondering why the OBA government is now decided they want to make the buses and the ferries an essential service, and Marine and Ports and DPT an essential service.

“When you look at some of the comments that's been made in the paper today, it's a form of union-busting and I will say this to you — it can't be described as anything else, other than that.

“This is not 1834. We're not going back to slavery. We're not going back to the plantation,”

Mr Furbert added that he would be filing a complaint against the Government with the ILO.

Mr Furbert was joined by Opposition leader Marc Bean and a number of Progressive Labour Party MPs.

Opposition deputy leader Derrick Burgess — a former BIU President — condemned the proposed law as “union-busting”, telling the crowd that it demonstrated Government's intent to make workers unemployed.

“As Chris Furbert said already, 21 days notice is not going to solve anything because even prior to the 21 days notice, unions sit down and they negotiate, and when workers say ‘we've had enough', workers don't just drop tools like that, they drop them because we've been meeting for months,” Mr Burgess said.

“The union must stand up for its rights and these interests here. You've got to take to your feet, because they're trying to privatise you, they're trying to cause unemployment with the workers.

“Those people that are responsible, we can't take this no longer. This is 2014, this is not 1962, but we can go back to ‘65 if you want to, we can go back to ‘81, or we can go back to ‘91,” Mr Burgess said, citing the Belco Riot of 1965, the General Strike of 1981 and labour strife of 1991.

Premier Craig Cannonier, flanked by members of his Cabinet, emerged from the House of Assembly during Mr Burgess's speech, and addressed the crowd immediately after.

Mr Cannonier insisted that Government was willing to listen to union concerns and had no plans to lay staff off.

But he said that everyone had “a collective responsibility to the people of Bermuda”.

“Let me just assure everyone that is here, this is not about taking away anyone's jobs,” Mr Cannonier said.

“We have already committed that we would not be taking anyone's jobs away from them. We have made that commitment.

“I have said it over and over, we are not looking to have anyone lose their jobs, what we are looking for is a collective responsibility to the people of Bermuda, and if we can find away we can collectively be responsible, then that is the way that we need to go.

“It is vitally important that when we look at essential services concerning these departments, that to the people of Bermuda we be responsible.

“To the young kids and to the seniors that are catching the bus.

“There has to be a limit, and what we want is a responsible way of being able to say if there is a need and we have a disagreement and that we are going to put down our tools, that we give the people of Bermuda a responsible time to be able to do that.”

During his address to staff, Mr Cannonier was frequently heckled and at one point Mr Furbert had to step in and urge his members to “show respect”.

The Premier was shouted down on several occasions with cries of “Paper Bermudians go home”, “Phoney” and “Be careful what you say”.

Public transport services have been disrupted by wildcat actions on several occasions in recent weeks.

Last month BIU members across all divisions went on strike in support of five Fairmont Hamilton Princess Hotel staff who had been made redundant. The action ended three days later after a climbdown by the resort's managers.

And two weeks ago Marine and Ports staff, along with workers from the Department of Parks, walked off the job for four days over complaints about how the sectors were being managed.

Staff returned to work after Government promised an internal audit of both departments.

Services were disrupted again yesterday after bus drivers and ferry operators attended a union meeting before marching on Parliament.

But staff vowed to be back on the job following the demonstration, which ended at around 12.45pm.

A Transport Ministry spokesman later confirmed that normal services had resumed.

Public transportation workers chant at a union march outside of the House of Assembly. (Photo by Mark Tatem)

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Published March 06, 2014 at 8:00 am (Updated March 06, 2014 at 8:24 am)

Tempers fray as workers march on Parliament

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