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Unions to make counter-proposal

Bermuda’s public sector workers have not accepted the Premier Paula Cox’s pay cut and pensions contribution freeze package.

But indications are that there is strong willingness to work with the Government in hammering out agreement on the way forward in time for Budget Day.

The Bermuda Public Services Union executive presented the Premier’s proposal to its members in a two and a half-hour meeting yesterday which culminated in a series of counter-proposals to be put to Government this morning.

It was standing room only at the St Paul Centennial Hall where more than 1,000 members met to discuss the proposal.

BPSU executives told

The Royal Gazette following the meeting that its members agreed to put forward four counter-proposals to the Government.

“There was frank and open debate. That debate has culminated in a counter-proposal that the members have ratified by way of a motion and we will present that to Government officials tomorrow morning,” said Secretary General Ed Ball.

They would not reveal any details of the counter proposals, saying that the Government officials should be the first to hear them.

Last night Bermuda Industrial Union president, Chris Furbert confirmed that his union has also decided not to accept the Premier’s proposals and put forward a counter-proposal to the Government yesterday afternoon.

“People are concerned about that (the pensions freeze) but they are also concerned about the overall situation the Government finds itself in in relation to the recession,” said Mr Furbert.

Reacting last night, Ms Cox indicated she was not shocked the offers were rejected by the two unions, saying she remained confident deals will be struck.

She told

The Royal Gazette there was no rush to conclude the agreement before next week’s Budget, adding: “That’s not a factor. The Budget will be done whether the agreement is done or not.”

It is not known whether the Trade Union Congress will be able to come up with a unified response to the proposals.

TUC President Shine Hayward said that the organisation had received feedback to the proposals from the Bermuda Union of Teachers and the Police Association but other members of the group, including the BPSU, had not submitted their feedback by end of day yesterday. Five of the TUC’s seven member unions represent Government employees.

The BIU is not a member of the TUC.

“There are some concerns that are similar across the board,” Mr Hayward said. “But respective memberships also have their individual concerns.”

He said the group was “hopeful that the Government and the people will appreciate that this is not something that should be rushed.”

Asked if the Government had presented any alternatives to the proposals, Mr Hayward said: “The alternative is job cuts. We can appreciate that the Government would like to go through this process without losing any jobs.”

The Premier’s proposal is to cut wages by an amount equal to the amounts deducted from workers’ paycheques as contributions into the civil servants’ pension fund, while freezing such contributions for a year. Some workers contribute eight percent of their gross salary, while others contribute 9.5 percent.

The arrangement is meant to ensure that workers do not suffer a net decrease in their take home pay. And because other deductions, such as payroll tax, are based on a percentage of gross income, it will in fact mean that workers get a slight increase in take home pay - a calculation confirmed by Mr Hayward yesterday.

“Based on their proposal, their net take home pay will end up being more than what their current net is,” he said.

But workers will also lose a year’s worth of pension benefits when they retire.

Of the overall proposal presented by the Premier, Mr Ball said: “I don’t think that people are particularly perturbed as it pertains to job security and first and foremost working to ensure Bermuda is seen to be back to the pre-2008 economic profit margins that is required for this Island to succeed. This is about the success of Bermuda and I think that came through loud and clear.”

But Mr Ball did acknowledge, when asked, that the idea of tampering with the pension fund was concerning to a number of the BPSU’s members.

“The pension is for one’s retirement so when you start messing with people’s earning powers that’s what happens. That’s always a concern for every union.”

BPSU President Kevin Grant said there had been “very lively dialogue” during the meeting.

“People were passionate about what’s happening with their membership and what’s happening with this country,” Mr Grant said. “We can say that we did come to a decision and, hopefully, we present them to Government and we can get this country back on its feet.”

He indicated, when asked, that Government officials would not be entirely unfamiliar with their counter-proposals as a number of alternatives had come up in their discussions.

Mr Grant and Mr Ball expressed some disappointment that discussions had not taken place with Government long before the current negotiations.

“We’ve been stressing and stating for months and warning Bermudians that the rest of the world will catch up to us in terms of the economy,” said Mr Ball. “It’s now caught up to us and the reality is we’ve got to do things differently. The private sector has been going through it. It’s just caught up with the public sector.”

The BPSU had been seeking a tripartite economic forum for several years, added Mr Grant.

“We want to be a partner because nobody wants to be in this particular position. Nobody.”

“Deliberations were long and hard,” is how one woman described the BPSU’s meeting.

About 75 people left the crowded hall before the counter proposals were presented. Only a handful would give their views on the Premier’s proposal, and most were against what they saw as tampering with their pensions.

“It’s complex and it’s stressful. Because it’s about the future,” said one woman.

“I don’t want to mess with the future and that’s what the pension is. The pension is about the future. I think we should not touch that,” said another member who decided not to stay for the vote.

“The people of Bermuda did not get ourselves in this mess and I feel the burden should not be on them to get ourselves out.”

Another woman described the pension freeze proposal as “harsh punishment”.

“People look forward to that,” she said. “That’s what everyone’s working for primarily - to see their pension and to be able to live on that.”

Another woman who also left the meeting early angrily denounced the Government for being “three or four years too late” to take action on the economy.

“When other countries were making changes in 2008, what was our Government saying? The pension fund is fine and now you want to do this at the 11th hour?” she asked. “If we accept this right now there’s no guarantee that things will get better.”

She added: “I feel for the PLP because this is an election year and their chances of winning the election are very slim. They always say a poor PLP is better than the UBP, but the UBP doesn’t exist anymore and people are seeing things differently.”

Premier Cox has also proposed a similar deal for the Island’s legislators, but with an additional five percent pay cut. The Opposition One Bermuda Alliance rejects the proposals, saying they represent a “raid on the future” because they jeopardise the pension funds and force taxpayers to eventually pay for any shortfall. But OBA legislators have agreed to take a five percent cut and donate it to charity.

The Premier has declined to answer any questions related to her proposals until the Budget is presented to parliament.

“The Government of Bermuda presently is in discussions with the public sector unions and as such it would not be appropriate for the Premier to comment publicly,” reads a statement released by a spokesperson.

Counter-proposal: Bermuda Public Service Union members leave St Paul AME Centennial Hall yesterday.

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Published February 16, 2012 at 1:00 am (Updated February 16, 2012 at 8:04 am)

Unions to make counter-proposal

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