By NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporter
Fears were rising last night that Inagua will become “a ghost town” after Morton Salt gave its workers a 15-day ultimatum to agree acceptable industrial terms or be “locked out” of the plant.
The salt harvester, in a letter exposing its growing exasperation and frustration over the two sides’ “impasse”, accused the line staff union representing more than 100 of its workers of failing to negotiate “in good faith” and disrupting “the economic viability” of its Bahamian operations.
Morton Salt executive, Christopher Getaz, told Jennifer Brown, the Bahamas Industrial, Manufacturers & Allied Workers Union (BIMAWU) president, that her members will be locked out of its facilities from July 3 unless the company received a reply indicating the two sides can reach a “happy medium” over a new industrial agreement.
Noting the union’s possession of a strike certificate, and previous threats of industrial action, Mr Getaz also blamed reduced productivity and work slowdowns on the BIMAWU’s influence, and suggested that the “lock-out” was required to redress the negotiating balance.
These actions, he alleged, included “an operating deficit in all harvest levels” on a daily, weekly, monthly and year-to-date basis to February 22, 2019; “significantly lower boat loading rates” in February and March; and a “reduction to lowest loading rates”, which caused “significant costs and placed the company at risk of missing the contract for de-icing salt” around early March.
“The foregoing requires the company to consider whether, in the declared industrial action climate, it is necessary for the company to lock employees out of the plant in furtherance of the company’s bargaining objectives in negotiations for a new industrial agreement,” Mr Getaz told the union.
“We invite a response from you within the next 15 days with a view to arriving at a happy medium between the parties. Failing such a response, or the arrival to a happy medium between the parties, the company intends to proceed with its lock-out at the expiry of 15 days from the fate of this letter.”
Morton Salt’s position of: “Agree an industrial deal on terms acceptable to us or be locked out”, and the company reaching the end of its patience, is further reflected by Mr Getaz when he wrote yesterday that the company’s June 13 offer to the union was its “best and final” position. “The company is not in a position to make further offers,” he added.
“As such, the company has no alternative than to perceive the parties as having arrived at an impasse. Further, the company is unable to ignore the strike certificate which the BIMAWU has in its possession, the industrial action threatened by the BIMAWU in support of its bargaining objectives, and/or the refusal of the BIMAWU to de-escalate the current affairs by publicly dispelling the perception or notion of its intended industrial action.”
Morton Bahamas was more conciliatory when subsequently contacted by Tribune Business, saying: “We hope to get back to the negotiation table and come to an agreement soon. No one likes a work stoppage, and we’re optimistic that we can have productive discussions in the coming weeks to avoid a lockout.”
The union’s Ms Brown, though, told this newspaper that Inagua would become “a ghost town” should Morton Salt follow through with its staff lock-out threat. She added, though, that while the BIMAWU wanted an industrial deal it would “not sign for stupidness”.
Any work stoppage at Morton Salt - especially a prolonged one - will have a devastating affect on Inagua’s economy and residents. The salt harvester is by far the island’s main employer and business engine, and any disruption to its operations would undermine its entire economic foundation. Its “lock out” threat effectively forces workers to choose between having a job and no job at all.
“I told the manager it’s not just the bargaining unit employees that depend on the company,” Ms Brown said. “If the company fails, we all fail. If the company shuts down they won’t keep managers working and have us off the job. This will be a ghost town.
“We want the contract signed but we are not going to sign for stupidness. Just because we want a contract signed doesn’t mean they can give us anything and we must accept that.”
In its e-mailed response to Tribune Business inquiries, Morton Bahamas said: “At Morton Bahamas, we are committed to fostering productive working relationships with our employees. For the past year, we have met in good faith with union representatives in an effort to reach a new labour agreement.
“We have also worked together with a conciliator to help drive toward a solution and we hope to come to an agreement soon. Since the beginning of our negotiations, we have been considerate and mindful of balancing the needs of our employees with the needs of our business in order to sustain the long-term viability of our Inagua operations.”
It added: “In fact, just last week, the union representatives decided not to attend scheduled conciliation sessions leaving the company sitting at the bargaining table alone. We are hopeful that they will change course and join us in actively working to resolve any differences. We remain steadfast in our commitment to positive relations with the union and we hope to come to an agreement soon.”
Mr Getaz’s letter, worded far more strongly, argued that the union had demonstrated “consistent non-cooperative behaviour” which “does not represent a commitment on its part to negotiate in good faith”.
“Notwithstanding the agreement between the company and executives of the BIMAWU as to convenient dates to resume negotiations, you and other representatives of the BIMAWU failed and/or refused to attend negotiations at the Labour Board on both Tuesday, June 11, and Wednesday, June 12, 2019,” he wrote.
“The company has determined that this non-attendance was a clear flouting of not only the process agreed upon by the parties but, more gravely, the ‘good offices’ of the conciliator at the Labour Board.
“Further, the company notes that such behaviour forms part of a larger pattern of misconduct as the BIMAWU also walked out mid-week in previous contract negotiations which the company conducted on October 23, 2018, and January 23, 2019. And the BIMAWU thereby discontinued those contract negotiations.”
Morton Salt’s Mr Getaz added: “In addition to its failure and/or refusal to attend agreed negotiations, the BIMAWU has also rejected the company’s counter-proposal for a new industrial agreement without presenting a counter-proposal, and while making it clear that it did not intend to resume negotiations with the company in good faith or at all.
Ms Brown, though, told Tribune Business it was the union that has been disrespected. Speaking to the company’s assertions, she said: “This is where we are now. The company says that’s their final position and have given the union two weeks to either accept it, make some move towards negotiations, or they are going to lock the employees off the job.
“Last week we were supposed to resume negotiations. The flights were full so we weren’t going to go in until Wednesday. Before we went they presented their proposal of 1.5 per cent and scratched out some of the things we had already talked about. We are supposed to move on to other things now and they stuck to the 1.5 per cent.
“We said they are not serious and we would not waste the union’s money travelling to Nassau. The last meeting we had they told us to put some things in writing and from that time to now we got no response. That is disrespect,” she added.
“We were concerned the meeting was not going to be fruitful so we did not attend. The company may have millions of dollars to go back and forth but we don’t. I had sent an e-mail to the Department of Labour stating when they got serious we would come back to the table.”
Dion Foulkes, minister of labour, did not respond to calls up to press time. John Pinder, director of labour, was said to be attending an International Labour Organisation (ILO) meeting in Geneva.