Season of confrontation?
ARE WE IN FOR a season of confrontation between Government and the unions representing public sector workers, following the refusal of three representative bodies to attend a meeting with Government last Friday?
The reason given for the non-participation of the Teachers’ and Public Service Unions as well as the Police Welfare Association is their objection to a security requirement prohibiting them from taking their cell phones into the meeting with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance.
The meeting went ahead with leaders of the National Workers Movement and the Commercial Technical and Allied Workers Union participating. At the conclusion, a joint statement agreed to between Government and these two unions was issued setting out small salary increases for public sector workers over the 2018-2020 period.
The unions which boycotted the meeting have raised strong rejection both of the quantum of the increases as well as on the grounds that neither the NWM nor the CTAWU had any mandate to negotiate for their members.
While that is true, those with the responsibility of representing teachers, public sector workers and police officers must reflect on whether the course of action employed, in abdicating that responsibility was the most prudent one in the circumstances. Was the battle over the cell phones, however strongly they might have felt personally, worth giving up the right to put forward the views of their members?
It could be, as comments attributed to the leaders of the boycott made clear, that the unions had from the outset considered that the meeting would have been a waste of time because, in their view, the Government did not mean to engage in meaningful negotiation. If so, should they not have sought to get clarity on the basis of the meeting and its objectives? Was the meeting only about the 2019 Budget and therefore could not supersede the legitimate demand for collective bargaining agreements?
Whatever the reasoning, we now have a de facto stalemate.
What should we read into it?
Will there be no further meeting between Government and the unions, as the Prime Minister seemed to be suggesting when he spoke of those unions
“losing their opportunity”?
Will the Government be prepared to offer an olive branch and still meet with these unions? Are the unions mature enough to recognize the grave responsibility that they have to their workers and not to let relatively minor issues become a distraction? Or are we to witness protracted confrontation which will not bode well for the workers, the Government or the country as a whole?
And, what of the two unions which participated, the leaders of which are the most experienced trade unionists in the country? We are sure that they are cognisant of the critical need for unity in the workers movement, so are they willing to reach out to their colleagues, in spite of differences, in the interest of the National Labour Congress?
If, on all sides, pride and prejudice take precedence, we run the risk of industrial unrest and very frankly, political manipulation of the workers and their representative bodies. The situation calls for sober judgement, maturity and compromise or we are all bound to lose.