Editorial: Collective bargaining and the unions

While we respect fully the tenets of the International Labour Organisation’s Conventions No. 87 and No. 98, [both ratified by Barbados in 1967], that guarantee the freedom of association for trade union purposes of workers’ and employers’ organisations and their right to bargain collectively, we nevertheless remain intrigued by the explanation recently offered by Ms Toni Moore, the general secretary of the Barbados Workers’ Union, for accepting a five percent across the board increase for its public service members from the current BLP administration. It will be recalled that the BWU had earlier demanded a fifteen percent increase from the recently rejected DLP administration.

According to Ms Moore, “…the five percent increase is exactly what her union had in mind all along”. Thus, as she asserts, her members were “happy with the outcome of the pay negotiations”. And she blamed a lack of engagement on the part of the last administration for the failure to reach an amicable settlement.

While we have no intention of expressing ourselves in sentiments identical or similar to those reportedly attributed to Senator Caswell Franklyn in this matter, we are nonplussed by an assertion that “our members were anticipating that we could settle between four and six percent” in light of the unwavering insistence on a fifteen percent increase that would have appeared highly unrealistic to any state employer, given the existing economic circumstances.

To argue that the union was “not given an opportunity to negotiate past that fifteen percent” appears to us to be the height of sophistry. After all, if an initial proposal of a fifteen percent increase is made to an employer at a time of economic stringency, this might be representative of failing to bargain in good faith since, as subsequently demonstrated by the acceptance of an increase five times less than that proposed, the proposal could have been considered untenable.

Although we concede that there is no legal obligation on the part of the parties to an industrial relation to agree a collective bargain, the agreement to negotiate is not totally devoid of content. It requires the parties to make realistic proposals, to disclose all relevant matters within their knowledge that might affect the outcome of the negotiation and to consider offers made in good faith.

We would not wish to think that the two major public sector unions -the other organisation, the National Union of Public Workers, proposed an even more unlikely twenty-three percent increase- were being politically partisan in their bargaining.

Conventionally, these organisations are entitled to the right freely to organise their activities and to formulate their programmes but international labour law also recommends that they should limit the field of their activities to the occupational and trade union fields.

Even more of a cautionary tale or teaching moment is to be found in the warning of the Freedom of Association Committee of the Governing Body of the International Labour Organisation to the effect that “when trade unions decide to establish relations with a political party or to undertake political action as a means towards the advancement of their economic and social objectives, such political relations or actions should not be of such a nature as to compromise the continuance of the trade union movement or its social or economic functions, irrespective of political changes in the country”. In other words, the independence of the organisation is considered key to its effectiveness.

A word to the wise should suffice.

Barbados Advocate

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