AT the start of the summer, this column raised a question: Is a summer of discontent heading our way?
Fast forward to yesterday, with public servants marching on the streets and junior doctors only providing emergency service and it appears the answer was very much yes.
Back in May, when we raised that question, we had urged both sides to get on with the one thing that was needed most – talk.
That remains one of the outstanding items on the to-do list. Civil servants marching yesterday were seeking higher wages – but they were also wanting to get on with negotiating their outstanding industrial agreement.
Bahamas Public Services Union president Kimsley Ferguson said as they gathered outside where Cabinet was meeting that “we would be delighted to sit outside and hear what the government is going to present”.
Meanwhile, junior doctors were on strike for a second day, bringing non-emergency services grinding to a halt. Some of the stories emerging from that show the real pain that people are experiencing from the withdrawal of services, from complaints in the maternity ward to families being unable to identify their loved ones. Society affected from the cradle to the grave.
These are not the only disputes – and there may still be more to come, with the teachers union seeking a 20 percent pay rise and the government busily turning out its empty pockets.
There lies the heart of the problem. The government says simply that it has no money to offer.
Already, the government had been signalling it might miss its deficit forecast and pointing the finger of blame at unions that might seek more than the government could afford.
That came before the government suddenly realised just how badly the ongoing power crisis was affecting the country and Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest was told to shake out the piggy bank and see what could be done to sort that out. With more borrowing possibly to come there, it leaves the money available to negotiate deals with unions thin on the ground.
Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis said the country is “taking ourselves out of the pit, but still have a lot to do”. He says the government will try to make the unions know “the state of the economy” which sounds far from the confident boasts from leaders after the last unemployment figures or the projected record-breaking tourism numbers.
So why is the government in this position? That was the question too of National Congress of Trade Unions president Bernard Evans, who said it was “hard to fathom” how it was so hard to strike a deal with unions after economic growth and the hike in VAT. He wants to know why the government is “in such dire financial straits”.
The signs have been there for some time that the government’s pockets are empty – from reduced plans for National Health Insurance to delayed spending in other areas. At the same time, the word came from Minister of Health Dr Duane Sands this week that the government didn’t want to impose the sugary drinks tax he had suggested – or any tax for that matter.
So are the coffers empty? And if so was nothing budgeted to meet the demands of unions or even just the standard renegotiations of deals that were due to come up?
There are many questions regarding individual deals with unions – but perhaps the broader question is whether the government was in a position to make any deals. Has it been stalling for time? Is this why negotiations are outstanding? And if so, then when does it expect to be able to make good on matters?
Unions can play their part if the situation is as dire as the government paints – by looking to agree multi-year deals where the benefits come in after the first year. But to do so, they need to be sure the information they are given is correct, and that promises made now will be honoured over the duration of any deal.
Remember – there are more disputes to come. The summer of discontent might be almost over – let’s hope it’s not followed by an autumn and a winter of trouble too.