“People might not get all they work for in this world, but they must certainly work for all that they get…” Frederick Douglass
The Barbadian industrial relations culture is relatively unsophisticated. Here, there is no formalized process of the recognition of a workers’ organization as the certified agent of a bargaining unit, an issue that that has arisen on at least two occasions in recent times; there is no industrial tribunal or court to resolve rights disputes according to law; the collective agreement does not create a binding legal relation; and while there has been an attempt to preempt these and other issues by the establishment of a form of social partnership comprising representatives of labour, government and the private sector, there is at least some dispute as to whether this arrangement is as functional as it should be. At the same time, there is no essential services legislation.
Hence, industrial disputes are generally resolved by “force of industrial arms” and prime ministerial mediation rather than by judicial reasoning, even if the issue is one that cries out for a legal resolution. Of course, there may be nothing wrong with this method once all sides are on board with it, but my training compels me to see the legal recourse as the more effective option, especially where the issue is essentially one of legal principle.
Take, for instance, the on-going dispute between the local public sector union, the National Union of Public Workers and GAIA Inc., the concern that manages the island’s lone airport. From what I can gather, this dispute, which has already engendered one round of protest action, and some perfunctory “sabre rattling” from both sides of the divide, involves the deceptively simple issue of whether the workers are entitled to a further 3.5% as part of an overall 7.5% wage increase that had been agreed to between the parties in 2010. I say “deceptively simple” here, because, as I will argue later, the legal issues are indeed rather complex.
As is usual in these matters, those facts that are in the public domain are regrettably vague, but it seems that after this seven point five percent increase was agreed, and four percent of it had been paid to workers, there was an official directive that there should be no further increases in wages at that time owing to the existing economic climate. It is also reported that the NUPW initially objected to this but, at a meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in late December 2010, a “compromise” was reached between the parties. This understanding appears to have entailed that the outstanding 3.5% would be “taken off the table” (the quotation marks are not meant to indicate that these were the actual words used). It is alleged, in addition, that the workers at a meeting in early January 2011 endorsed this compromise. That endorsement was communicated to the relevant parties in writing.
However, according to the NUPW, that same correspondence included a condition that “should the economy improve” between then and June of that same year, the union would want “to revisit the moratorium placed on year 2011 increases”. It appears to be a bone of contention whether this condition subsequent as to an improvement in the economy was ever fulfilled.
It is, for me, a pity that this dispute will not be resolved in a legal forum, mainly because it does present some intriguing legal issues. For one, would the initial promise by NUPW to forgo the 3.5% be contractually binding, given that the other side had supplied no consideration for this promise? Or should it be treated rather as a waiver extinctive of the rights of the workers?
For another, what is the effect of the subsequently notified condition that this concession was to be read subject to there being no improvement in the economy in the next six months? Did this effect a mere suspension of the workers’ rights or was it an unseasonable (too late) qualification of their original concession? Had it been stated from the outset of the compromise?
Finally, if the condition was applicable, was there indeed a measurable improvement in the economy during the stipulated period? Or is that stipulation too vague to be legally enforceable? Would it now be inequitable for the NUPW to assert its claim to the 3.5%?
While such issues would clearly be matters for urgent consideration in the industrial courts of Trinidad & Tobago or Antigua & Barbuda or in the Industrial Disputes Tribunal of Jamaica, they will have to be resolved here eventually on the uncertain basis of apparent moral legitimacy and perceived right. Unfortunately, in Barbados, that frequently translates at the populist level into the partisan political agenda with opinion evenly divided between the views of those in support of the apparent position of the governing administration and those opposed thereto. This is almost laughable, especially in a circumstance where the dispute is between two independent entities…but that is the way it is. As I have noted on more occasions than a few prior, we subsist in a theatre of the absurd.
As it is, the current dispute is situated in the heart of the main port of entry in the middle of the tourist season -the lifeblood of our economy. Ordinarily, this should concentrate the national mind to immediate action, but not here. It will work itself out in the end, I can hear. It always does.