By Natario McKenzie
Tribune Business Reporter
Resort employers yesterday slammed the hotel union for “deliberately riling up” its members into voting for a strike by misleading them over the 15 percent gratuity’s fate.
Russell Miller, the Bahamas Hotel & Restaurant Employers Association’s (BHEA) president, yesterday read out a statement to the media in which the group - which represents the interests of major New Providence hotels - accused the Bahamas Hotel, Catering and Allied Workers Union (BHCAWU) of engineering a strike vote “around issues that simply do not exist”.
Affirming that hotel employers had never proposed eliminating the automatic 15 percent gratuity, Mr Miller said the union’s leadership had simply made “an uninformed assumption” over the BHEA’s offer and “stirred up” their members’ worst fears to gain overwhelming support for a strike.
He also accused the union of misrepresenting both the content, and process to-date, in the two sides’ dealings as they inch towards what are likely to be heated and contentious on the first hotel industry industrial agreement for six years.
Mr Miller’s statement made plain the employers’ anger and distaste for the union’s conduct, describing its behaviour as “unprofessional and, quite frankly, grossly irresponsible”. He also described the union’s claims that employers were unwilling to negotiate as “at worst, patently dishonest” and “not in the least bit productive”.
It is rare for the BHEA to make such a strongly-worded public statement, given that it is a conservative organisation which, as it pointed out yesterday, never wants to conduct industrial agreement negotiations in public through the media.
Mr Miller, though, said events over the past two weeks leading up to the strike vote - including the burning of the BHEA’s initial industrial proposal - had left it with little choice but to “set the record straight” for both union members and the Bahamian public, and “reset the basis for future negotiations”.
Mr Miller and BHEA members declined to take questions at yesterday’s media conference, and only addressed the 15 percent gratuity when it came to the union’s specific concerns. The BHCAWU’s other allegations concerning the employers’ purported bid to end automatic Christmas bonuses, moving them to mid-January and tying them to hotel performance, were not addressed.
Nor were claims of an end to guaranteed Christmas hams and turkeys, or changes to vacation terms and pay on days when workers are sent home. Sheila Burrows, the union’s general secretary, declined to comment on the hotel employers’ statement other than to say the union will respond during tomorrow’s Labour Day holiday.
Mr Miller, though, argued that the hotel union’s impatience to secure a new industrial agreement was “disproportionate” because it had taken more than six years since the previous deal’s end for it to submit a new proposal - one the employers had responded to in just four months.
Focusing on the strike vote, Mr Miller said: “There has been a deliberate attempt to stir up sentiments around issues that simply do not exist; case in point, the removal of the 15 per cent gratuity. This is not a part of the BHEA proposal.
“Apparently the union made an uniformed assumption and chose to mislead their membership in order to rile up the fears of our team members and secure support for a strike vote.” Tribune Business previously reported that hotels are seeking a “more equitable distribution” of the gratuity among the various worker categories that currently benefit from it, not its elimination.
The hotel union’s strike vote follows a recent pattern of trade unions taking such action early in the negotiating process, as happened with the Water & Sewerage Corporation union.
In the BHCAWU’s case, this appears to have been designed to obtain some leverage and bargaining chips it can play in the upcoming talks with hotel employers that are set to begin on June 27. In the hotel union’s case, it had almost no cards to play until the vote due to its failure to abide by the terms of the last industrial agreement six years ago.
Mr Miller pointed out that the last industrial agreement between the two sides expired back in January 7, 2013, but no new deal was agreed because the hotel union missed the October 8, 2012, deadline by which it had to submit its proposal for a new collective bargaining arrangement.
It was required to do this by the terms set out in the old deal, which is being treated as if it is still in effect. Mr Miller added that the BHCAWU “took more than six years” to submit proposals for a new industrial deal, which were sent to member hotels of the BHEA in December 2018 and January 2019. The employers responded collectively some four months later.
“BHEA members acted quickly and responded substantively to the union’s proposal in less than four months of receipt. Surely the union’s level of impatience is disproportionate considering it took them more than six years to submit a proposal,” said Mr Miller.
“For the union to represent to their membership and the public that the industry had not shown a willingness to negotiate was, at best, misleading and, at worst, patently dishonest. Whichever way you chose to characterise it, this was unnecessary and not in the least bit productive.”
Mr Miller added that the two sides’ subsequent interactions were marred by the union filing trade disputes and misrepresenting the BHEA’s position as being unwilling to negotiate.
He revealed that they met at the Hotels Centre on March 15 this year, where the union was advised that the BHEA was in the process of completing its counter-proposal and was confident this would be sent out by the second week in April.
“The union accepted this position and indicated that they looked forward to receiving the industry’s proposal. Yet some time between March 15 and April 18 the union filed a dispute,” Mr Miller said. “The basis of the dispute was that we had not commenced negotiations.
“On April 18, 2019, the BHEA members’ proposal was hand-delivered to the union’s office at Workers House on Tonique Williams Highway. Although the timeframe for the BHEA response to their proposal had been discussed at the March 15 the meeting, the union proceeded to file a dispute with the Department of Labour with the complaint being that we had not sought to commence negotiations.
“It is important to note that up to that moment, the union had not even acknowledged receipt of the BHEA counter-proposal. The BHEA was notified of the filed dispute on May 7, 2019, when a notice was received to appear at the Department of Labour on May 15, 2019 to address the matter,” added Mr Miller, noting that it was subsequently agreed that the dispute had no merit.
During the May 15 meeting, the BHEA said its lead negotiator Michael Reckley would be away on vacation in early June, and the first available dates to begin negotiations would be in the latter half of June. The dates were to be proposed within a week.
“As promised, on May 17, a letter was sent from the office of Mr Reckley to the union suggesting a meeting on June 27 to commence negotiations,” Mr Miller said. “Disregarding Mr Reckley’s letter of May 17, on May 21 the union issued a letter proposing negotiations commence on June 4, 5 and 6 2019, ignoring the fact that these dates were already precluded due to Mr Reckley’s unavailability. Again, at best, it is disingenuous and, at worst, it is an attempt to undermine good faith negotiations.”
The resorts that are members of the BHEA bargaining unit are Melia, Atlantis, Ocean Club, Harborside, the British Colonial Hilton, Lyford Cay Club and Towne Hotel. Significantly, Sandals Royal Bahamian, SuperClubs Breezes and Baha Mar are not included.