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Raffique Shah


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Jam them!

By Raffique Shah
Aug 07, 2011

The trade unions and government have both contributed to messy state of industrial relations that hovers over us all at a time when we should be focussed on climbing out of the economic mess we remain mired in. Gun talk, rather than constructive dialogue, drives the tension to unbearable levels.

Prime Minister Kamla Persad -Bissessar is reported as having told union leaders, when she terminated a meeting with them, "Bring on the national strike!" (or words to that effect). And Ancel Roget, offering little hope of a negotiated settlement, warned the population, "Stock up on candles!"

Are these two leaders, and their allies and advisors, for real? Just what is the PM trying to prove? That she has more balloons than all the male trade union leaders? And why must Roget dangle the "blackout" sword over the population at a time when T&TEC remains the most efficient and dependable of our utilities? Clearly, the national interest is low on the list of priorities of both protagonists in this battle.

What are the facts? The unions representing public sector workers are seeking to close a three-year agreement for the period 2008-2010. Public sector here means all persons employed directly by government and its statutory boards and agencies. It encompasses, too, many employees of state enterprises.

The first question that arises is why this issue flared up in 2010? Why not in 2008 or 2009? The simple answer to this seemingly stupid question is this has always been the pattern. Unions hardly ever submit their proposals for new industrial agreements until the end of the first year of the period under review. And the Chief Personnel Officer (CPO), who represents government (except in the case of state enterprises), rarely responds until late in the second year. So negotiations, or confrontations, spill over into the third year and beyond.

Readers might know I was a union leader, but I represented cane farmers who did not enjoy collective agreements that spanned three-year periods. We negotiated on a year-to-year basis, and won increases (price paid for canes) periodically—rarely every year, and sometimes not for three years.

I was also a director on two big state enterprises at different times (like many of my union comrades). In the most recent case, having been through a stormy, third-year confrontation with the representative union, I insisted that the corporation conclude all new agreements within the first year. That was when I learned that the unions would not submit proposals until the second year. I guess a big "back-pay" for workers sounds and feels better than money in their pockets from early o'clock!

The current impasse would not be on the table now, or more accurately, on the streets, had there been an early settlement. So the Patrick Manning administration escaped the confrontation. Knowing the anti-union mindset of many in that Cabinet, I would not have been surprised if they had offered less than five per cent even as they frittered billions on non-essential projects.

The People's Partnership government says it cannot offer more than five per cent over the three years gone. What is its rationale? Well, other than saying it cannot afford it in the current economic circumstances, it said nothing else. Belatedly, it started speaking out on the parlous state of government's revenues, its huge subsidies and debt obligations.

People's Partnership spokesperson Suruj Rambachan identified some of these at Cabinet's media briefing after Finance Minister Winston Dookeran had spoken of our economic woes. And what are these insurmountable hurdles standing in the way of a better offer for public sector workers?

Well, there is a $2.4 billion deficit at WASA, and $535 million at T&TEC. So why not raise water rates to more reasonable levels, install meters, and have people pay as they waste? Trinis do not use water, you know. Those who enjoy 24-hour supply waste it. Jam them! $2 billion saved! A marginal increase in electricity rates would wipe out that utility's deficit.

As for the $4 billion fuel subsidy, I have repeatedly pronounced on this stupidity. Petrotrin must buy oil for its refinery at market prices, refine it, then taxpayers fork out this humongous "subsidy" so that motorists can bad-drive people for next to nothing! Jam them! Cut that subsidy by at least 50 per cent. Bear in mind that lifting these subsidies will affect the very public sector workers who are crying out for increased wages and salaries. Government will have the last laugh—giving with one hand, taking back with the other!

Other than the $4 billion fuel subsidy, I don't know that government supports Petrotrin in other ways. If it does, cut that out, too. Let the oil giant and other state enterprises stand on their feet. If they cannot, let them fall. Taxpayers, who get little relief, cannot carry corporations that operate like parlours, except that the operators are paid more than currants rolls. Sell them. Such measures could save the state $10 billion or more a year.

Then offer public sector workers 10 per cent—but with a caveat. The employer must have the right to terminate unproductive employees! From managers to cleaners and everyone in-between, those who are tardy, lazy, forever sick or busy-doing-nothing, give them the axe! How do you determine those who fail to meet established standards or targets?

There must be systems already in place to monitor performance. But add CCTVs to all offices and jobsites. Fire workers and managers who are unproductive, and hire new persons from the pool of unemployed to replace them. Multiple problems solved.

Now, go ahead—jam me!

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