By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Trade union leaders have insisted they will not be “made the scapegoats” if the government misses its 2019-2020 fiscal targets.
Bernard Evans, the National Congress of Trade Unions (NCTU) president, told Tribune Business it was unfair to blame the public sector unions and their members for “derailing” the government’s fiscal consolidation efforts given that the Minnis administration should have known pay negotiations were coming.
Responding after K Peter Turnquest, deputy prime minister, warned that public sector union talks were a potential “fly in the ointment” that could throw the government off its one percent fiscal deficit goal, Mr Evans said worker representatives had “taken enough” when it came to being blamed for difficult industrial relations.
His comments came as Kimsley Ferguson, the Bahamas Public Services Union’s (BPSU) president, last night told this newspaper that the union would stay true to its promise to the Prime Minister not to say or do anything before tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting.
Disclosing that Dr Hubert Minnis had pledged to contact him by then, Mr Ferguson said the union had proposed a three-year industrial agreement that would see members receive a $250 base salary increase in the first year, a $2,500 lump sum payment in the second, and a $200 base salary increase in the first.
The BPSU chief spoke out prior to a statement released by the Ministry of Finance revealing the two sides’ differences over the timing and payment of a $1,200 “lump sum” payment to public officers, worth a total $20m.
The Ministry confirmed it had proposed splitting this payment into two $600 tranches, due in August and September this year, due to the Government’s “cash flow needs”. This was rejected by Mr Ferguson and his BPSU team, who argued that the acceptance of $1,200 “was already a concession”.
“The BPSU was advised that due to the scale of the funding requirements, meeting an end-of-month demand would be a challenge in all instances,” the Ministry of Finance statement said. “While it is true that the BPSU was not encouraged by the recommended action, it was made clear at the end of the meeting that the minister would present the results of the meeting and the positions taken by both negotiating sides at the earliest meeting of Cabinet for a decision.”
That meeting will be held tomorrow, hence Mr Ferguson’s reference to Tuesday. The BPSU chief made no mention of last Thursday’s Ministry of Finance meeting, but denied social media rumours that public sector workers planned to protest the situation today in Bay Street near Parliament and the Cabinet office.
“The Prime Minister asked me to give him until Tuesday, and being an honourable man I am going to do just that,” Mr Ferguson said. “In respect of what we have discussed, I have given my word that we will remain still until such time that he contacts me.
“I’ve not received anything from the Government along the lines of a counter-proposal regarding the financial aspects of an agreement. We’ve had some discussions with the Prime Minister, and I’ve asked him to give consideration to certain things. I’ve given my word that we will stand still until he gets back to us, which I expect to be Tuesday.”
He declined to respond to Mr Turnquest, who last week told Tribune Business that public sector pay negotiations are a potential “fly in the ointment” that may cause the Government to miss its 1 percent deficit target for 2019-2020.
However, Mr Evans, the NCTU president, argued that such a warning was “disingenuous” given that the Government should have been keenly aware the BPSU’s contract had expired in 2017 and there would be pressures for an increase.
“The union is not going to sit idle unless you make a public statement that there will be no increase for the public service for the next three to four years,” he said. “You’ve got to be prepared for expiring union contracts, and knowing unions will be coming to the table seeking an increase.
“Agreements typically last for three to five years, and you’re back at the table pretty soon. You can’t expect to levy tax increases and cost of living increases and expect unions not to seek increases for their members. If they were paying attention there should have been an allocation in the Budget for this.
“You can’t make unions out to be the scapegoats. It’s really hard-working Bahamians, whose contract expired in 2017, and have been waiting for their union to get back to them. This should have happened in 2017, even 2018. We should not be made scapegoats that we’re derailing efforts to address the fiscal situation.”
Mr Evans likened the situation to a leaking roof that needed to be fixed regardless of whether money had been allocated for it in the household or company budget. He suggested the same applied to the public sector union pay talks even if no provision for increased salaries and benefits had been incorporated into the 2019-2020 budget.
“To make the union the ‘fly in the ointment’ gives a bad and negative construction on the union. We’ve taken enough,” Mr Evans said. “You can’t continue to run the country and believe your citizens and workers will not demand an increase. That comes with the territory.
“We’re asking the deputy prime minister: Don’t use us as scapegoats for constraints as a result of what you’ve embarked on. While they’re crunching the numbers it was ill-advised to come out with statements blaming the union as being a hindrance to the Government meeting its overall objective.
“Physical targets and constraints should not come at the expense of workers meeting their day-to-day obligations. It shouldn’t come to that.”
The Ministry of Finance statement said Treasury and Public Service ministry officials also attended last Thursday’s meeting with the BPSU, which came after the matter was referred to them by the Prime Minister following his talks the previous day with Mr Ferguson.
“The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the Government’s ability to finance a payment to public officers for back to school preparations,” the Ministry’s statement said. “The Government sought to negotiate a good faith resolution which would be presented to Cabinet for approval.
“The union proposed a lump sum payment of $1,200 for the benefit of public officers. The total value of payments was estimated by the Government at approximately $20m. The BPSU was advised that any proposal emerging from the meeting would be subject to the final approval of the Cabinet and availability of financial resources to accomplish it in the time frame being sought.”