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Unions give ultimatum over new labour legislation

IU President Chris Furbert responds to new labour legislation at a press conference (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Unionised workers could strike if the Government moves forward with controversial labour reforms to be debated tomorrow in the House of Assembly.

Bermuda Industrial Union president Chris Furbert warned at a press conference today that if Jason Hayward, the Labour Minister, did not drop proposals by which unions can be made to stop representing workers, workers could walk off the job, as they did in 2015.

Mr Furbert and Bermuda Public Services Union president Armell Thomas said they were both “offended” that Mr Hayward, a former BPSU president, had described the legislation as appropriately balanced.

The two spoke against the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 2020, which contains a clause on decertification – the procedure when workers decide to break with a union.

They charged that the legislation allows non-unionised workers in a bargaining unit to participate in a secret ballot terminating the union’s power to represent them.

The legislation also proposes that if 60 per cent of members in a bargaining unit voted for decertification, it would take place automatically.

Both presidents said that only union members should be allowed to vote in a decertification – and that the figure for a majority should be 66 per cent, or two thirds.

Mr Furbert said the minister had consulted with the unions three weeks ago and had told Mr Hayward they did not support it.

He said it “should not be allowed”.

Mr Furbert added: “If the minister persists in going down this road, which is going to impact the union, I am going to report to our general council and our members that this is a big disadvantage.

“They will react.”

He said: “Look at what happened in 2015, when the Minister of Finance, the honourable Bob Richards with the furlough days said we would need to continue, what happened? The whole civil service shut things down.

Mr Furbert said if the legislation went ahead: “I think our membership are going to stand up like they did in 2015”.

In 2015, unionised Government workers staged three days of protests to force the then-government to end furlough days aimed at cutting costs.

Mr Thomas the new labour laws were poorly-timed legislation during a time of austerity and economic hardship.

“They’re taking home less pay and you’re trying to force union decertification?

“It’s not a good time for this Government to put this forward. People right now are on edge.”

Asked if he was surprised at the move coming from a labour government, Mr Furbert said “labour has never asked” which administration was in charge.

He added: “We’ve never asked Government for favours. All we want is what’s fair.”

The two issued a statement that allowing non-union members to take part in decertification “runs contrary to the general principle of democracy”.

Mr Hayward said the new legislation had a provision for an automatic agency shop agreement which pertains to all workers of a bargaining unit.

He said it meant workers in a bargaining unit would have to pay a mandatory contribution to a union whether they chose to become members or not.

It also meant the union was the sole bargaining agent for all workers in a bargaining unit whether or not they chose to become members.

He added: “As a result of the automatic agency shop agreement, the mandatory contributions, and the fact that the union controls the bargaining rights of all employees in a bargaining unit, all workers should therefore be entitled to an equal vote to decertify, irrespective of their union membership.

“It should be noted that in order for decertification to be successful it will ultimately require union members to vote against their union or support the decertification efforts.

“This is best practice under the democratic principles of trade unionism, and the practice that is consonant with international best practice, is that all members of a bargaining unit may vote.

“As 60 per cent majority of workers in a proposed bargaining unit is required to automatically certify a union, the proposal to require a two-thirds majority vote to decertify would be inequitable.”

Mr Hayward said earlier today that unions “oppose the prescribed process for decertification, even though it is an improvement from the existing provision”.

He added the legislation, which includes the Employment Amendment Act 2020, would conclude “a seven-year labour law reform process that included extensive collaboration and consultation with tripartite stakeholders”.

He said there had been “reservations and pushback from the Bermuda Employers’ Council and the Chamber of Commerce” but said he was “confident that these legislative amendments will support workers and enhance their rights”.

The employment amendments range from providing a midway performance review during a probationary period to prenatal appointments, bereavement leave and workplace policies against bullying and sexual harassment.

He said the union legislation would also consolidate employment tribunals into one body, and taking away the minister’s power to refer a dispute to a mediator, as well as establishing civil penalties of up to $5,000 to replace “most offences requiring court appearances”.

Mr Hayward added later that the change was "best practice under the democratic principles of trade unionism".

He said: "As 60 per cent majority of workers in a proposed bargaining unit is required to automatically certify a union, the proposal to require a two-thirds majority vote to decertify would be inequitable.

"The Government has endeavoured to be fair and balanced in this matter and will continue to work with tripartite stakeholders to strengthen the labour relations environment in Bermuda.”

The proposal was also backed by the Bermuda Employers' Council tonight.

Keith Jensen, the president of the BEC, said: "There should be an equally fair process for decertification since it is up to all staff in the bargaining unit to be in favour of representation or against union representation.

Mr Jensen asked: “If the process was only left to a few union members how is that fair to the rest of the staff?

"In a situation where there were only three union members and 17 non-members, how could it be democratic for three to decide whether to start a process for decertification?“

He said: "A majority voting decides certification or decertification and that is only fair."

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Published December 11, 2020 at 3:00 pm (Updated December 11, 2020 at 2:59 pm)

Unions give ultimatum over new labour legislation

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