By Raffique Shah
January 08, 2011
THE industrial relations climate in the country seems poised to take us into a long, hot dry season. Last week’s “double whammy”, protest action by a number of trade unions and a strike by maxi-taxi operators, signalled the start of what may well be a year of turmoil. Government seems to be unwilling to offer more than five per cent in salary increases to public servants. Should there be no compromise, other public sector and State enterprises’ employees would be forced to accept this as a benchmark for the 2008-2010 period.
Finance Minister Winston Dookeran says Government’s offer is effectively nine per cent. I don’t know if “Dooks” majored in maths at university, or just how he came up with an additional four per cent. He also referred to the increases on offer as favouring the lower-paid public servants. If this is true, then it’s the way to go, to close the gap between the few at the upper end of salaries scale and the many at the bottom of the ladder.
Watson Duke, dressed in combat gear, vows that the PSA will accept nothing less than “double digits”. In this, he has the support of his fellow unionists. They understand that this is a case of today for the PSA, tomorrow for the NUGFW, TTUTA, the OWTU and other unions and workers. Interestingly, the PSA struggle has forced unity among most trade unions. Among those in the frontline of the protest was John Jaglal, a long-time All Trinidad unionist and UNC activist. Also taking the platform was Government senator David Abdulah, a principal officer of the OWTU.
With regard to the maxi-taxi strike, there was a rather curious twist. Works Minister Jack Warner is leading the charge to legitimise private vehicles for hire. Warner’s point that these vehicles provide a service to commuters, where bona fide taxis fail, has some validity.
However, he stands on very soft ground when it comes to legitimising the operations of these vehicles. It could get rather sticky when the question of insurance coverage for passengers comes to the fore.
My understanding is that the cost to insure passengers in a private vehicle could range between $3,000 and $5,000 a year. That is in addition to what they currently pay to cover the vehicles and drivers. Are these “PH” drivers prepared to pay that fee? If they cannot, will government expose commuters to the risk of having no coverage, should they suffer injury or worse in accidents while they are passengers in such vehicles?
This move by Warner gets “curiouser and curiouser” as one examines it. One such twist was the presence of Rudy Indarsingh and Clive Nunez at Warner’s side during the bid to break the maxi-taxi strike. In Clive’s time as head of TIWU, the union that represents bus workers, he would have called on his members to back the maxi-taxi strike. Now, as a member of the Board of the PTSC, Nunez had the dubious distinction of breaking a strike! Indarsingh, junior minister to Jack, was a vociferous unionist who, like Clive, would have come down hard on “scabs”. But there he was last Wednesday, overseeing strike-busters.
Switching back to the PSA-led protest, there were some unionists in the frontline who, in last May’s general elections, spoke on People’s Partnership platforms. In fact, the OWTU’s Ancil Roget said as much as he branded the Partnership Government as being “worse than the PNM”. He, and BIGWU’s Vincent Cabrera, both Partnership supporters, have found themselves in quite a pickle. To add to the unionists’ discomfort, the Labour Minister is comrade Errol McLeod, who has understandably been a spectator as the labour movement comes under the Government’s gun.
While I understand my comrades’ plight, I think there is room for compromise, for bringing these vexing issues to an amicable resolution. On the question of legitimising “PH” cars, Jack must ensure that taxi operators are not disadvantaged. The auxiliary transport personnel, as they call themselves, must subject themselves to the same conditions as maxi-taxi operators.
For example, they must not ply their vehicles on the main routes that are adequately serviced by existing public transport. They must also secure proper insurance coverage.
One benefit from the strike is it exposed the need for the PTSC to provide a proper, nationwide bus service. Putting 100 buses on the PBR for one day is not a solution to commuters’ woes.
As someone who uses the bus on trips to Port of Spain, I have long argued for bus rapid transit over rapid rail. However, the PTSC has to attain high standards in its operations and with its facilities. There must be proper schedules, punctuality, comfortable facilities at main bus stops, and its terminuses upgraded to world class.
On public sector negotiations, unions need to understand that government has experienced a significant decline in revenues. In 2009, NGC’s sales dropped by almost 50 per cent and its profit plunged from $6 billion in 2008 to $2.3 billion. NGC is a key contributor to government’s coffers. We can only imagine what the national balance sheet looks like at the end of 2010.
And Government cannot ask workers to lower their expectations while it hires advisers and party hacks giving them hefty compensations. It must curb wild and unnecessary expenditure. Show workers you have their welfare at heart even as you demand productivity from them. Wouldn’t it be nice to avert a year of continuous war between the masses and Government?