Musings on De-Escalation
Not all of the ideas I floated have come to pass, although some of the key ones have.
(Video credit to Bernews)
Labour Disputes Act 1992
The Government took one of the first steps, rescinding the invoking of the Labour Disputes Act 1992.
From my perspective, this was an attempt to intimidate the workers and prevent a third day of mass protest.
This tactic clearly failed, with Wednesday having the largest turn-out of the three days. This presented the Government with the choice of acting on section 19 and trying to arrest thousands of workers, or to back-down. In light of the turn-out yesterday, taking police action would have been a huge escalation and push the crisis to unpredictable levels – besides, it’s not clear whether Government would even have been able to implement such action.
Rescinding the threat of section 19 was in a way purely a formality at this point, but it was still a necessary step required to allow talks to continue. Not rescinding it, but taking no action and instead coming to a resolution would make it clear that power didn’t reside within Government but within the people, and this would have been a capitulation too far for the Government.
No Furlough Days
I wrote that Government would have to accept that furlough days would not be extended again for this year, and alternative savings would have to be made – or Government would have to reverse its budget reduction plan, doing 3% this year and 5% next year.
Although the Government is insisting that the deal isn’t legit until Cabinet has ratified it, it would be practically impossible for them to now insist on furlough days following the conclusion of last nights talks and the public statement by the BTUC. Reintroducing furlough days for this year now would bring back the occupation of Cabinet Lawn with greater potency than we saw over the last three days. It would be complete political suicide for the Government.
This does not mean that furlough days cannot be considered for next year – I expressed that there’s the potential for some flexibility there. The important thing was to get some relief for their members this year. Next year, having had a year of relief, the membership may be willing to return to a year of furlough days, or some form of it (I suggested a reduced version, of half the number of furlough days, as a possibility there).
However, furlough days will have to be agreed by the membership – the first two years of furlough days was a voluntary move through a Memorandum of Understanding. If Government thinks it will be necessary for 2016/2017, then they’ll need to start discussing this potential with the unions now.
I noted that if Government insists on pushing for a resumption of furlough days this year, then it would need to offer some serious alternative concessions for the BTUC membership. As the resolution would appear to rule out the resumption of furlough days, this doesn’t seem to have been required.
I think the BTUC could have pushed for some all the same. And maybe they did, and we won’t directly know, but we might see some fruit of this later on. The 2014 Throne Speech noted that all the labour laws were going to be revamped, and some of what I proposed, in terms of concessions on labour law changes, might be represented there instead.
We might also see announcements on the cost of food, utilities and banking practices going forward, but packaged as being separate from this. That’s fine. It lets the Government spin things to let them look good and benefits the workers, so that’s pretty much a win-win situation, fine.
For how long?
Although the current impasse seems to have been broken, and a satisfactory resolution to the crisis arrived at, one must wonder whether this marks a period of industrial piece, or just the opening chapter of a new labour history for Bermuda.
Naturally, it’s too early to tell.
My own feeling is that the latter is more likely.
We have a resolution – maybe – for now, but I’d reckon it’s more of a temporary pause than an end of labour struggles between the unions and the current Government.
It’s clear that the trust relationship between Government and the Unions is virtually nil. It had been in tatters all of 2014, and the last few months has completely shredded what was left. Even the Premier’s response to the BTUC’s public statement last night worsens (or reflects) the relationship, despite a resolution being met.
And while trust can be rebuilt, it’s a huge uphill struggle to do so, and conflict is much more likely going forward (where trust is missing).
Government will leave this week feeling bruised and on the defensive from the outstanding labour mobilisation of this week.
While they’ve essentially backed down, I’d be worried about them now resorting to a long-game hoping to exact revenge of some sort. The unions will need to collect themselves and not be distracted by heady feelings of victory here – they need to keep their wits about them and carefully watch Government going forward.
Specifically, I’d be on guard for a return of the Public Services Reform Bill, or the attempt to extend the definition of ‘essential services’. And during the negotiations on redrawing labour legislation, the Government may seek to introduce more draconian laws than the already draconian labour laws we currently have.
Be watchful always must be the watchword of the BTUC in the coming months and years.