By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A trade union leader yesterday branded Morton Salt’s 15-day “lock-out” ultimatum to its workers as “the first time in Bahamian history that an employer has gone on strike”.
Obie Ferguson, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) president, told Tribune Business that the line staff union cannot bow to the salt harvester’s “incredible” threat given that the industrial agreement terms it is offering would leave workers worse off than they are now.
The attorney, and chief negotiator, for the Bahamas Industrial, Manufacturers & Allied Workers Union (BIMAWU) said increased worker contributions towards their health insurance coverage would more than offset the salary increases offered by Morton Salt.
Arguing that the company’s threatened action is exactly what trade unions are urged not to do, Mr Ferguson described its proposal as a “deficit industrial agreement” and called for salary increases that matched the inflation rate.
He questioned whether Morton Salt was truly negotiating given that it had not shifted from its original offer, and denied the company’s allegations that the union was not negotiating in good faith and causing work/productivity “disruptions” that were undermining the “economic viability” of its Inagua plant.
Mr Ferguson instead blamed the failure of a four-day negotiating timeframe scheduled for last week on Morton Salt’s delay in sending its latest counter-proposal and other documents to the line staff union.
Adding that the proposal, when received, contained nothing new, the TUC chief voiced fears that Morton Salt’s worker “lock out” - if it ultimately goes ahead - could establish a dangerous precedent that “spurs” other employers to take similar action.
Mr Ferguson was responding after Morton Salt, in a letter sent yesterday to BIMAWU president, Jennifer Brown, warned that it will “lock employees out of the plant” on Inagua come July 3 of the two sides are unable to reach “a happy medium” on an industrial deal.
Christopher Getaz, a Morton Salt executive, wrote that should this not be achieved, and/or the union fails to respond in a manner desired by the company, the “lock-out” and closure of the plant to its workforce would begin.
Such a development would deal a devastating blow to Inagua’s economy and residents, given that Morton Salt is by far the island’s largest employer and virtually all economic activity spins-off from its salt harvesting.
“It’s incredible,” Mr Ferguson told Tribune Business of Morton Salt’s warning. “I’ve not seen this happen ever where there’s a bargaining impasse between employer and bargaining agent. They’re the first company that’s prepared to go on strike over workers failing to agree an agreement that gives them a deficit industrial agreement.”
Explaining what he meant, the TUC chief said the base salary increases offered to workers over the proposed industrial agreement’s three-year term - 1.5 percent for each of the first two years, and 1.9 percent for the final year - were lower than the current rate of inflation and cost of living increases, which have both been impacted by last year’s VAT rate hike.
And, Mr Ferguson argued, the increase in staff contributions to their health insurance coverage would more than offset the positive effect from salary increases. “The increase in insurance would give you what I call a deficit industrial agreement, a negative,” he told this newspaper.
“The other thing is that the union asked the company to give them evidence that the increase in insurance premiums is as a result of the demand of the insurance company. They say they’re not prepared to disclose that information. We’re of the view that those figures cannot, under normal circumstances, increase to that level over the three-year period. It’s not justified.”
He added: “The company is now prepared to do what they say the union ought not to do; go on strike. The company says it is going on strike and will lock out all of you if you do not do what you’re supposed to do in 15 days.
“The union has asked for their last best offer, and it has been the same for the last couple of years. On what basis are you negotiating? The workers produce millions of tonnes of salt for the company. To the best of my knowledge, and I stand to be corrected, but I don’t think the Government benefits from fees from them or anything of that nature.”
Moron Salt’s Mr Getaz made clear in yesterday’s letter that the company delivered its “best and final offer” to the line staff union last week, adding: “The company is not in a position to make further offers.”
With both sides “at an impasse”, Morton Salt said it was “unable to ignore” the threat posed to its business operations by the BIMAWU’s strike certificate and warnings of industrial action - hence its need to balance the situation with the threatened “lock out”.
The salt harvester also accused the union of being behind work slowdowns and disruptions that had impacted production, and blamed the failure of union representatives to attend negotiations scheduled for June 11-14 for their failure.
Mr Ferguson, though, blamed Morton Salt’s failure to provide a counter-proposal prior to those meetings for the breakdown. “We had agreed that within that four day period we’d put all the disputes together, sign off an an agreement,” he added. “Those dates were set to negotiate the outstanding issues. They wanted it not to be in the press. Nothing happened.”
The TUC president said that when a Morton Salt proposal was obtained via Morgan Graham, the deputy director of labour who was acting as conciliator between the two sides, the union’s view was that nothing had changed since the company’s opening offer.
Calling on Morton Salt to disclose how much salt was being produced by its Inagua staff, and whether they were meeting production targets, Mr Ferguson dismissed the company’s allegations of disruption as “general statements” that needed to be backed by specifics.
“The workers are producing millions of tons of salt and feel entitled to a pay increase equivalent to the inflation rate. It can’t be 1.5 percent. That is really where the issue is. They’re only asking for a pay increase in line with production and that is reasonable,” he told Tribune Business.
“This is the first time I can remember an employer going on strike. It’s a new development. They’re making it a condition you must sign off what they put forward or otherwise they will lock-out all employees of the bargaining unit.
“That may spur something of a general nature, as if one employer gets away with it all can do it. For the first time in The Bahamas the employer is on strike, which is unhealthy for the labour movement.”
Mr Ferguson added that the BIMAWU will now have to consult its members and “think through” its position very carefully.