I must confess to a longstanding admiration for Prime Minister Freundel Stuart’s command and use of the English language. Oftentimes, when I hear him speak, I would jot down his words in the hope that some day I would be able to express myself similarly. I am sure that I am not the only one who is awed by his turn of phrase. However, I must caution that pretty words do not necessarily equate to knowledge of any particular subject, no matter how eloquent the speaker happens to be. Unfortunately, every time he ventures into the realm of industrial relations, he makes statements that suggest that he has a mere superficial knowledge of the subject. His pronouncements on the dispute that surrounds the reversion of NUPW president, Akanni McDowall, is just one such example.
Mr. Stuart contends, “we are departing from well established industrial relations procedures” that have served this country well through the last 50 years of our independence. Mind you, these procedures sprang from the Social Partnership that he once labelled as a philosophical absurdity, when he had clearer vision in his younger days as a member of the Opposition. Now older and as Prime Minister, he seems to be the champion of the procedures that were develop by the same absurdity that he predicted would emasculate the labour movement. His prediction has come true. In opposition that prospect worried him but now in government, he wants us to believe that he is so magnanimous that he will protect the labour movement for the benefit of the country as a whole.
The PM was quoted in the Daily Nation of November 17, 2016 as having said:
I have thought it quite irregular that while discussions are going on and clarifications are being sought, that industrial action should be instituted. I say that is not the way we have done things in Barbados over the years.
The NUPW believes that its president has been victimised for his activity as a trade union leader. As far as it is concerned the actions of the Personnel Administration Division (PAD) are also quite irregular and such behaviour merits immediate industrial action for this gross violation of industrial relations norms. Nothing less would suffice. If the union cannot protect its president from victimisation by the employer, it would be useless to protect the average member. This is a battle that the NUPW cannot afford to lose. No self-respecting union would allow any employer to victimise its president for speaking out in defence of its members. The PM must understand that the union is fighting for its survival in these circumstances.
So far, PAD has issued a statement detailing the sequence of events that led to McDowall’s reversion but has failed miserably to convince any impartial observer that political interference in the Public Service was not the motive that set the ball rolling. I am not impartial in this situation; I am an opponent of NUPW and most likely would benefit from any fallout but the perception of political victimisation is too powerful for me to go into any self interest mode. This assault on NUPW deserves to be met by a clear response from all unions. Failing that, it will only be a matter of time before it is their turn.
If Mr. Stuart is so concerned about maintaining a stable industrial relations environment in this country, good sense would dictate that he should encourage both parties to the dispute to revert to the status quo ante while negotiations are on going. To do less would confirm that Government is only giving lip service to the concept of a strong, independent labour movement and only wants one that sings in its choir.
Finally, Mr. Stuart has threatened to fix the voluntarist system that he mistakenly believes obtains in the Public Service. To the PM, I say thanks but no thanks, the labour movement was doing just fine before politicians wormed their way into strategic positions in unions. All we ask is that you do your job of running the country and allow unions to get on with their business. And don’t believe for one minute that politicians have a monopoly on what is in the best interest of this country.