* Minister tells unions: Others won't eat at Xmas
* Comes as ties severed with chair, top manager
* Union chief warns over 'three stage' action
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister last night reminded the Water & Sewerage Corporation's two unions the utility "loses money every day" after they moved to cut-off all contact with its chairman and general manager.
Desmond Bannister, deputy prime minister and minister of works, told Tribune Business both the middle management and line staff needed to see the wider picture and appreciate that "there will be Bahamians who cannot eat and feed their families this Christmas" as they launched "stage one" of their industrial action.
He added that he planned to meet leaders from the Water & Sewerage Management Union (WSMU) and Bahamas Utilities Services & Allied Workers Union (BUSAWU) tomorrow after the two, in a joint statement entitled "enough is enough", called on their members to block all phone calls from Adrian Gibson, executive chairman, and Elwood Donaldson, the general manager.
Besides severing communications with the state-owned utility's top management, the two unions took their non-cooperation further by urging members to "immediately exit all Water & Sewerage Corporation What's App chat groups" and "turn in all cell phones" belonging to the utility.
Such action, if union members follow through, threatens to paralyse the Corporation's operations over the Christmas season as senior management will not be able to communicate or issue instructions to the junior executives and line staff.
Explaining their actions, the two unions' statement said: "We have now arrived at a place where the Corporation has refused to acknowledge, and failed to consult, legitimate officers of each union in regard to union-related matters."
In response, Mr Bannister said: "I am going to meet with those unions on Thursday morning. The reality is we all have to appreciate there are Bahamians this Christmas that cannot eat, that cannot feed their families.
"At the Water & Sewerage Corporation, everyone is getting paid and getting their salaries. We all have to understand the serious challenges the country faces. There are serious challenges that the Bahamian people face. Every single one of us has to appreciate that we may reach some kind of understanding where we can't get everything we want.
"I expect union leadership will understand and lead their members. If we have the type of conduct they suggest, it's going to work to the detriment of the Corporation and will not enhance the Corporation. The Corporation loses money every day. The Government [meaning taxpayers] sacrifices to pay the Corporation's salaries, and we have union leaders making these kinds of statements."
The two unions, in their joint statement, cited their major grievances as the failure to pay Christmas bonuses to their members. This has been a growing cause of industrial unrest elsewhere, with unions alleging that employers are unilaterally varying the terms of agreements that stipulate a bonus and defined amount are to be paid.
Both bodies also pointed to the Corporation's alleged "failure" to complete and negotiate industrial agreements with each of them, as well as "unilaterally varying the terms and conditions of the industrial agreement with respect" to accrued vacation and "transferring day workers to shift workers without consultation and agreement".
The fifth and final concern related to the alleged failure to "pay overtime associated with Hurricane Dorian for both unions". Neither Mr Gibson nor Dwayne Woods, BUSAWU's president, returned Tribune Business calls and messages seeking comment, while Mr Donaldson said he was in a meeting and promised to call back but never did.
Ednel Rolle, the management union's president, told Tribune Business that the two unions have two more stages planned in their "three stage" approach to industrial action, although he declined to detail what they were.
"We already started initiating that today," he added of severing communications with top executives, saying "we'll know by tomorrow [today]" how widespread and effective that has been. Besides the most recent issue of Christmas bonuses, Mr Rolle said the Corporation had "failed to treat" over a new management union industrial agreement that has been outstanding for several years.
He argued that the terms had been agreed in principle only for Water & Sewerage Corporation executives to seek the last-minute removal of a clause giving the union's members first option, or right of first refusal, on all outsourcing opportunities.
"If you fail to meet and treat with the union, it's a sign of disrespect," Mr Rolle said. "It doesn't say something good about the Government itself. Nevertheless, that's who we have to deal with. It's time to closure.
"What happens from here on is up to the Government. Mr Bannister is now the deputy prime minister, so obviously with his word some solution could come forward. Now he has a high position he has more clout. He has the Government on his shoulders, so I think he'll look to do the right thing."
However, the leadership positions of both Water & Sewerage Corporation unions have been subject to recent legal proceedings in the Supreme Court. In Mr Woods' case, a new election for the presidency was ordered by the Supreme Court after the overall fairness" and integrity of the first leadership ballot was "called into question".
Mr Gibson earlier this year said the Corporation was facing a $30.8m "backlog" on payments due to vendors at end-August 2020, a sum that continues to grow, and a $15m-plus year-over-year decline in revenue for the year to-date.
"Frankly, the Water & Sewerage Corporation is in dire straits," he said. "Our operating cash flow cannot sustain monthly payments for vendors and payroll.
"These challenges have resulted in a backlog of supplier payments that are steadily growing, and there's concern about monthly payroll for the balance of 2020. Our vendor payments backlog as at August 27, 2020, was some $30.8m."
Mr Gibson said this payable covered everything from monies owed to third-party contractors; vehicle and building insurance; and loans due to multilateral institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and Caribbean Development Bank (CDB).