Union chief: 'Defer' pay rises for completed industrial deals

* Advocates exchange till economy revives

* TUC boss makes renewed 'public plea'

* But warns: 'Don't treat us as if don't exist'

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

A top union leader has suggested that organised labour defer salary and other benefit increases in exchange for employers concluding long-outstanding industrial agreements until the economy revives.

Obie Ferguson, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) president, told Tribune Business that his "public plea" would show Bahamians that unions were not as greedy and demanding as employers and the Government sometimes portrayed them to be.

Renewing calls for a proper "partnership" between labour and capital, Mr Ferguson said unions and their members were keenly aware that COVID-19 and Hurricane Dorian had brought the Bahamian economy to their knees, with many companies now struggling for survival.

But, while not insensitive to the employer's plight, he argued that "you cannot operate as though we do not exist" in reference to what multiple unions have branded as attempts to unilaterally alter or vary established working practices and industrial agreement terms without prior consultation with the unions.

Atlantis has been accused of doing this three times by the hotel union with regard to Christmas bonuses, gratuity payments and recent furloughs, while similar charges have also been levelled at Restaurants (Bahamas) and the Water & Sewerage Corporation.

All three employers have argued that the relevant trade unions were informed of their moves prior to implementing them, but Mr Ferguson also identified the Broadcasting Corporation of The Bahamas (BCB), Bahamas Agricultural and Industrial Corporation (BAIC) and the Public Hospitals Authority (PHA) as potential areas of industrial unrest.

Acknowledging that he had previously warned Bahamian trade unions off industrial action, the TUC chief nevertheless said there may be "a different approach in 2021" to addressing industrial disputes unless companies and public corporations engage with organised labour and their staff.

Still, striking a conciliatory tone, Mr Ferguson suggested that trade unions agree to "defer" any salary or benefit increases until such time as the Bahamian economy recovers from COVID-19's devastation in return for employers agreeing to complete long outstanding industrial agreement negotiations.

"It doesn't make sense," he told Tribune Business. "You can't take three years to negotiate an industrial agreement. How can you sit there and say you're negotiating in good faith? I suggest to the public and private sector: Negotiate these agreements and agree to defer the economic terms until the economy shows signs of improvement. That seems logical."

While grievance procedures, training and other non-commercial terms could take effect straight away, Mr Ferguson explained: "I am suggesting they [employers] negotiate with the unions, negotiate all the terms and defer the economic ones until the economy turns around.

"That would be my public plea, through which the public will understand that the unions are not as bad as they make them out to be. It's just that we need a partnership arrangement."

Mr Ferguson, though, had earlier described industrial relations at many private and public sector employers as "very vexing", even going so far as to suggest the Government hire executives more used to dealing with trade unions at its corporations, as concerns mount about the unilateral changes to worker terms and conditions as companies fight for survival.

"It's at a stage where it's very vexing to the trade unions because there seems to be an attitude adopted by the public corporations and, in some instances, the private sector, where there is no need to consult the unions on matters which have been agreed, on matters which have been registered, on matters that have been included in industrial agreements," the TUC chief blasted.

"I've gone public, taken a public position, and said this is a crisis time. The economy is not in the best shape having regard for COVID-19. We appreciate that. But you cannot operate as though we do not exist. We are prepared to work with the company. We have to. We're in this together.

"But when things are going well you do not recognise the union, and when things go bad you take the position you don't need to consult the union," Mr Ferguson said to employers. "Although I've asked the unions publicly to avoid taking strikes, that does not mean you can willy nilly change the terms of the agreement, change all the major things without consultation.

"To me, it's taking the union to a level where you may very well see a different approach in 2021. It will have to be. The unions will not have a choice. The unions are going to do what they tend to do when there's no recourse, no collaboration, no respect and no consultation.

"The unions will do what they traditionally do. That's not an intentional act, that's not a frightening act, but we cannot continue to operate in the manner in which we're operating. We recognise the state of the economy. Ray Charles can see that. Let us work together with collective intent. Thus is a really vexing problem where if they continue to disrespect the trade union body you are creating some serious problems."