Unions ‘must abide by law’
A legal battle between the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Island's unions has begun with a lawyer representing the Bermuda Government saying illegal strikes threaten the economy and future negotiations.
While the call for an injunction to halt walkouts by members of the Bermuda Trade Union Congress (BTUC) first came as a result of a labour dispute in January, the government is arguing that the issue extends beyond a single incident and a permanent order is necessary.
Lawyer Gregory Howard, representing the home affairs minister, said that it is time to “try to get the unions to abide by the law”, explaining: “It cannot be treated with a blind eye anymore.”
On January 26, BTUC members marched on the Cabinet Office when representatives of the unions and government debating cost-saving efforts reached an impasse with government refusing to take the subject of furlough days off the bargaining table. While the workers left the grounds later that day after both parties announced they would return to discussions that evening, the industrial action resumed the next day after the talks were delayed by government.
Michael Fahy, the Minister of Home Affairs, sought an injunction against the walkouts and an interim injunction was granted by the courts on January 28 — the same day union leaders announced that they had accomplished their goal.
Presenting the ministry's case, Mr Howard argued that unions have a long history of “guerrilla” industrial action, undertaken without first going through the process established in legislation and collective bargaining agreements.
Noting a series of walkouts in the past five years, despite a publicised agreement for the Government to forgive the Berkeley performance bond in exchange for an end to “wildcat strikes”, he said: “Repeated industrial action in the future is a certainty unless it's restrained.”
He described that the marches in January were an example of the illegal industrial action, arguing that the BTUC should have gone through the proper grievance procedures before calling a general meeting and halting work.
Mr Howard argued that further industrial action could potentially frighten off individuals considering investing in the Island, while disruptions to public service threaten the tourism industry, specifically noting the coming America's Cup.
“That's a risk the government is quite aware of,” he said.
“The potential of further damage is real, damage to government's effort's to ensure economic recovery.”
Mr Howard also said that part of the issue is that labour relations have been the victim of “benign neglect” over the years, and several collective bargaining agreements have actually expired.
“Some of them have been expired for quite some time,” he said. “In many jurisdictions that means there's a right to strike. The government's philosophy is that benign neglect needs to stop.”
He said that while government wants to address the issue, it is concerned that unless the courts call on the unions to avoid illegal strikes any impasse in discussions could lead to workers downing tools and sympathy strikes.
“That's the position that the government is hoping to rectify,” he added.
“That's the objective of this case. The unions have refused to accept that they have an obligation to follow the law.”
Lawyers representing the BTUC are expected to begin their response tomorrow.