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Saturday, February 23, 2013


“Negotiation is a game with aims. My own view is the current negotiations game between the GNT (Government Negotiating Team) and TUF (Trade Union Federation) has drifted away from the sphere of rationality to the sphere of a dangerous cat-and-mouse irrational war game; and if the players do not regain their sense of rationality, then the game may well result in significant collateral damage to the economy, which we can ill-afford at this time”.

History has shown that our public servants don’t “play by their money” - and especially when things get as bad as they are in St. Lucia now! And history is about to repeat itself. An obviously disgruntled public servant told me today that "who feels it knows it"; but paradoxically when it comes to seeking wage increases and especially in tough times like now where the request for such increases may be justifiable, public servants do not seem eager to invoke their faculty to “feel” . . . or for that matter even to hear, see, smell or taste. Equally, the government has become just as tenacious. Each side believes it has a better case. Hence, the posture of the negotiations has seemingly assumed that of an unyielding war-game, with neither party prepared to concede; the result: the schoolchildren and the larger economy suffering unfortunate collateral damage.

The seeming impasse looks like a dark cumulonimbus cloud hanging over the nation as it goes through the motions of its 34th birthday party – a cloud which bears some of the ominous marks of the industrial storm which swept over us at the time of birth of our nationhood in 1979; and this threat couldn’t have appeared at a worst time.

There’s no doubt that the public servants have embarked on large-scale industrial action, effective Thursday (February 21) and according to disclosures by the union hierarchy, the action will continue until Wednesday (February 27) next week.

The teachers and civil servants convened separate meetings on the eve of St. Lucia’s 34th Independence Anniversary and apparently the members who attended the meetings immediately “took ill” and that necessitated taking the rest of the day off to recuperate at home.

Officials from both unions were unabashed in their disclosures to the press. They claimed that the workers took ill over the “state of negotiations” and they may have to visit their doctors for medical advice; and based on that advice, they may or may not report to work on Monday and Tuesday. But they all hope to get well and return to work by Wednesday (February 27).

The impending “epidemic” of industrial action is apparently an organized response to what public servants say is the GNT's irrational and frivolous intransigence. And it seems to be already biting to the point where it seemed to have created a perception of potential industrial stability among the authorities who have responded in kind with the issuance of a statement from the PM’s office clarifying that Government offices were “open” on Thursday (February 21) and will remain open next week.

The big questions are: What will happen next? Will the assumed sickout be successful? Is it a simply freak storm in a teacup? Is it “much ado about nothing”? Or, on the other hand, will it trigger a ripple effect and put government under duress?

Whatever the outcome will be, it is bound to put the PM and his credibility under the microscope, for the power is in his hands to advise his negotiating team on the next sensible move to avert a potential industrial relations catastrophe.

Apparently, this time around the TUF seems “firmer”, more focused and better organized. They seem to have a sustainable “master strategy” moving forward which may well overwhelm the current government in the same way they duped the former PM.

Indeed, elements of the strategy are beginning to unfold as the TUF has smartly reduced the quantum of demand for salary increases but have increased the quantum (and menu) of benefits sought for their membership. The TUF contends that its members understand the stress and strain on the economy at this time; but they also submit there must be a “balanced equation” of reciprocity which takes into consideration all variables - not just the needs of the economy but equally the hierarchy of needs of the public servants. They claim that they understand that the economy needs VAT, WASCO needs 66% increase but that this is only one side of the equation. They argue they are not immune to the pressures of the economy.

Given the above considerations, they have invited government to do a "barter" with them. They have asked that part of their request for pay hikes be converted to benefits by way of duty-free concessions to travelling officers, pension benefits, reintroduction of increments and a reclassification exercise.

A rough quantitative analysis of those benefits suggests that their sum total may well far exceed by far the initial 16.5% increase sought. But will they out-fox the GNT?

Negotiation is a game with aims. My own view is the game has moved away from the sphere of rationality to the sphere of dangerous cat-and-mouse irrationality; and if the players do not regain their sense of rationality, the game may well result in significant collateral damage for the economy, which we can ill-afford at this point in time. The GNT’s inflexibility and the TUF's sick game point to a deeper problem of industrial relations immaturity on both sides. Why can’t big men and women arrive at a rational consensus? Is it that the GNT can’t convince the public servants? Or are the public servants intent on playing hardball?

One thing must be clear to the TUF: That the current PM is no Stephenson King. He too is a master strategist. So let’s see how events unfold and what the implications will be.

Be that as it may, I honestly believe the PM had the bird in the palm of his hands but he let it escape with the tone in his address to the nation. That was probably when the public servants first took ill. I am of the view that the public servants have a profound sense of understanding, sympathy and even loyalty to the government; and if the PM had used his savoir-faire to have a man-to-man talk with them, the impending industrial cloud which hangs over Fair Helen would never have been there.

At the moment, the unions look a little smarter and more offensive than they did before. But will their planned sick out have an impact? We will all get to know by Wednesday.

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