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Monday, March 25, 2013



“Am I hearing this correctly that the civil servants still get paid while on strike? What planet is St Lucia on? I thought that workers paid union dues so that if a strike was called they would receive strike pay from the union. Whoever heard of the employer paying strike pay. Please tell me I'm wrong” - DT, Choiseul, St. Lucia

The Civil Service Association (CSA), in its attempt to wrestle with gov’t in the pursuit of a 9.5% wage hike, will today enter its second week of strike action. The CSA’s ongoing strike action is in many ways a sequel to a protracted series of industrial action rocking the nation since February which started just before our 34th Independence anniversary and continued with a spate of meetings and sick outs under the TUF umbrella, as public sector unions sought a whopping 16% pay hike.

Eventually, the industrial action culminated in a lone strike action by the CSA - the only trade union that has been left out in the cold, locking horns with the Government Negotiation Team (GNT) over a request for pay increase of 9.5%. Meanwhile, all the other sister trade unions have accepted a 4% pay increase with conditions. It must be noted that the CSA at one point requested 4.5% with conditions but when the GNT turned it down, it suddenly reverted to 9.5% or nothing.

It is obvious that the CSA's “9.5% fixation” has run it into “trouble after trouble” with almost every sector of society, even including members of the (seemingly) disintegrating TUF. By its demonstrable lack of interest in a rapprochement, the CSA has brought about much unnecessary disharmony and protraction in the negotiations, making it appear that the entire process has degenerated into an irrational skirmish between the GNT and the CSA. At the moment, the extent of “collateral damage” to the CSA itself and the state generally has not been properly assessed. Suffice it to say, that there will be collateral damage and despite the vociferousness of its PR machinery, the CSA seems to be losing its grip as the GNT continues to remain solid in its position.

My own initial assessment is the long and meandering episode of industrial action by CSA seemed to have taken a substantial toll on its intellectual resources and credibility. To add insult to injury, the UWP has now entered the picture as a fraternal buddy, expressing marginal support and solidarity as well as propagating misinformation about the arrival of a shipment of tear gas on island.

It is obvious that the negotiations reached an endpoint since the GNT's offer of 4%. Indeed, in the public eye, the offer of 4% seemed a fait accompli which only the CSA has rejected. Notwithstanding, it is encouraging that in its latest overture to return to the table, a modicum of rationality seems to have returned to its head; however, one finds it difficult to reconcile that hint of “an olive branch” and overtures with its express intention to continue with strike action today. The whole thing is now beginning to look like an ego trip with a political agenda that is not so hidden.

Whatever the case may be, the country must think and act responsibly and overlook that ego trip! Government must accept the overture to talk and use the opportunity to put new proposals that will benefit both the workers and the state on the table. At this point in the stalemate, a sublime measure of reciprocity is required to achieve a meaningful breakthrough solution. In this article, I propose a “framework” to end the current strike action and to return the country back to work! I argue that government should award the public servants their 9.5% pay request but "with conditions". One of the conditions being a guarantee that 9.5% will translate to proportional increase in economic growth. The rationale for this position is also explained.

Where is the solidarity?
It is clear that the CSA under its leadership has lost its bearing and we need to help it find its way again. It’s definitely not the same powerful and principled CSA which was headed by Gabriel "Coco" Charles, Calixte George, David Demacque, Kingsley St. Hill or Joseph Dosserie! The CSA has lost its axis and it is losing friends rapidly as it degenerates into a mere a relic of the powerful trade union it used to be; and now, it is more and more beginning to look like a political tool. It’s also noteworthy that, up to this point, I haven't heard a single message of solidarity or support from any member of the local, regional or international trade union fraternity; only from the UWP and a couple of cronies.

Shooting in the foot
Apparently, in its desperate pursuit of an unreasonable 9.5 - 16% wage increase, the CSA's back and forth skirmishes have not only hurt them but moreso our tottering economy. It has more than “exposed itself to the elements” and in the process has uncharacteristically crouched in every conceivable posture – some of them unwarranted - to convince stakeholders that it deserves an exorbitant salary increase way above what the country can afford. What’s probably even more puzzling to me is the introduction of its first Vice President (Mr Pierre) as the economist – I assume – present its “economic argument”; but, its passing real strange that I have not heard a single credible and coherent economic argument from the honourable gentlemen to substantiate the CSA case - only extraneous scenarios filled with emotion and devoid of economic logic or sense. The CSA is almost shooting itself in the foot.

First pillars: VAT, inflation and consultants
To put the matter in logical perspective, let’s profile the chronicle of the CSA's multiplicity of shifting positions over time. Its initial overtures were generally of a “politico-economic” nature focusing on VAT, inflation and government’s top-heavy consultancies as the main pillars of its case. Indeed, I was shocked by the preponderance of misconceptions and illogic that circumscribed the arguments about VAT, even more so by the executing and implementing civil service agencies vested with the responsibilities for the implementation and oversight for the tax.  I was even more appalled by the first VP’s attempt to exonerate the civil service and put the “locus of control” for all the implementation "evils" and anomalies exclusively on the private sector and/or government. That angle was largely unfair and illogical because of the fact that the civil service is government's regulatory mechanism for consumer affairs. I winced at that desperate pseudo-argument and asked “Is there a need for a consumer affairs and price control department in government if they demonstrably shirk their critical responsibility for regulatory oversight and protection to the consumer?”

Second pillar: Water Tariff increase
Another seeming centre-piece in the CSA argument in their battle for a wage increase was the announcement of WASCO's proposal for an increase in water tariffs. As soon as WASCO announced the consideration of a proposed 60% tariff increase, the CSA like the malfini immediately pounced on it and made it a major platform to justify its the wage increase request. Strangely, that centre-piece seemed to have fizzled out with time.

Third Pillar: Discrimination
Then came the acceptance of GNT's wage offer by the PWA and the domino effect which followed. The CSA was apparently wounded and driven into a corner by the domino effect.  It suggested that Government was “discriminatory” in the offer of conditions to other TUF member unions by awarding them better allowances/benefits. That seemed to have soured them to the point where it caused them to “up their ante” from 4.5%  with benefits (which was turned down by the GNT) to a straight 9.5% - a claim they have yet to sufficiently justify in either qualitative or quantitative terms.

CSA and representation
Lately, the wild swinging for 9.5% has been directed at the private sector, blaming it for price gouging and other related offenses. That buck-passing raises three fundamental questions: (1) when will the civil servants accept responsibility for the duties they are paid to do to protect the public? (2) Are they ready for that responsibility anyway? And even more importantly, (3) when will that adolescent type trade unionism end?

Two additional issues also arise: Firstly, was the CSA ever prepared for negotiations? Secondly, does its leadership have the capacity to present an effective case on behalf of its membership? In the light of the meandering and posturing, I believe these are fair issues which beg for enlightenment. My own frank opinion is, the CSA might have sold themselves short.

In its effort to catch up, the CSA reminds me of the proverbial drowning man grabbing for any straw which comes its way. And that takes me to a new issue they have of late factored in the negotiation equation, namely, the public service workers who earn $950/month. The 1st VP claimed that with an award of 4%, those workers would receive a measly $3 monthly increase in salary. My calculations have shown otherwise: A 4% increase would amount to $38 (4% of $950 = $38); not $3! Should we assume that the 1st VP’s math is a logical application of the CSA’s “negotiation calculus”? I would hate to entertain that view but I can’t run away from its plausibility.

But let’s go further and ask: were the CSA ever serious about the category of workers who earn $950/month beyond lip service? And if this were the case, then why didn’t it negotiate using a mechanism to address that anomaly? It is noteworthy that with the 4% award, persons at the top of the salary scale will get a pay increase in the vicinity of $300 a month or over 700% more than the worker earning $950/month. Why didn’t the CSA - like the police, teachers and nurses - negotiate more smartly on behalf of those workers? Apparently, it went into negotiations without a plan to benefit its lesser members.

Preferential treatment
The CSA is crying wolf and now seeking a “preferential” - or is it an "executive" - 9.5% increase; but will it solve the wide gap between the “top-heavy” civil service and the $950/monthly paid workers at the bottom. Absolutely no!

Let’s see what will happen if the GNT were to agree to that 9.5% wage demand. The average CSA top executive (like the president) would now walk away with a spanking $665 monthly increase but the worker earning $950/month would only net a measly $90.25 monthly. Does this scenario give the CSA any moral authority to talk about equity?

Tottering angle
The CSA machinery evidently remains at the same tottering angle that it was at the beginning of the negotiation process; if anything, its position has become more precarious, as it is now hanging between the devil of its own intransigent indiscretion and the deep blue sea of increasing negative public opinion!

Based on my graph of expectations, I project the trend of irrationality and dilemma to continue to move upward as the strike continues into Week 2. The projected output or outcome can be nothing more but the pursuit of ego enhancement to compensate for the proliferation of evident deficiencies and to seek to prove a point to their counterparts in the TUF and detractors.

Whatever the outcomes during this week, the bottom line remains that the CSA has mismanaged the negotiation process at every turn. It has caused the process to degenerate almost irretrievably into a kind of senseless confrontational skirmish between itself on one hand and the GNT, the private sector, the general public and even sections of the media on the other hand. Now, it’s trying to catch up with the other TUF members and it must have felt that the best way to do it is by striking. However, in the current economic environment a strike was certainly not the strategically right move. Secondly, the CSA workers have been pursuing industrial action for 4 weeks and they may be coming down with fatigue and illness. With the thunder gone, hope dissipating away, negative public opinion growing and the economy slipping further and further into decline, persisting with the strike isn't only an ill-advised but equally a fatal move.

The new paradigm
Since the negotiation paradigm is "increase + conditions", perhaps, then it may be time for gov’t to join that paradigm and agree to award the civil servants their request with conditions. Firstly, since the CSA has claimed that the civil service drives the economy, then govt can award its members the 9.5% wage increase with conditions.

I propose the first condition should be a guarantee that the wage increase shall translate into a 9.5% growth in the economy. Because the paradigm is new, a number of major changes will be necessary to facilitate the paradigm-shift. One of those changes will be to throw away the current framework of performance assessments which guarantees every civil servant excellent appraisals and replace it with a different assessment framework.  (Check the files of every civil servant and despite allegations low productivity, nobody in the public service fails. Everybody enjoys excellent appraisals.)

Secondly, I propose we stop the Public Service from interviewing, recommending, appointing and appraising fellow civil servants.  I understand there is a Public Service Commission which acts on the recommendation based on appraisals by HODs. I suggest we begin to outsource those responsibilities to an independent private entity (IPE) which better understands the economy, productivity and efficiency. I also suggest that the (IPE) formulates key performance areas as well as performance indicators to form part of the new assessment framework to determine the economic impact of the performance of the civil service. Hence, the entire country will see the measurable returns on investments by the civil service and how do those returns translate to growth and wealth, the proceeds of which we can use part thereof to fund their wage bill. 

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