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Thursday, February 28, 2013


I’m at my wit’s end trying to give meaning to the “sequence of events” which is unfolding in the current industrial dispute between the TUF and government. The first stones were thrown by the PM when he addressed the nation - and indeed! it caused many ripples in "TUF circles". The second stone was thrown by the TUF when two of its member organisations (CSA and SLTU) convened separate but obviously "coordinated" meetings and then proceeded on sickout.

During the period of the sickout, the Chairman of the GNT said he couldn’t understand the basis for the industrial action because negotiations were ongoing and that there was no “impasse” between the GNT and TUF.

The PM in his second address to the nation last night contradicted the view of the chairman of the GNT when he declared that negotiations had reached an impasse and the matter should therefore be referred to arbitration.

And finally, today, the TUF said the negotiations process was still continuing; yet they are going to call their members out tomorrow and this would mean that they have withdrawn the labour for 5 out of 7 working days.

The sequence of unfolding events and rationalization thereof “smell a rat”. Hardcore “anti-public servant” pundits like Rick Wayne - who in the past have used every opportunity he gets to virulently berate the public service to the point of calling for its dismantling or cutting back - have remained deafeningly mute or uncharacteristically non-committal. Timothy Poleon seemed to be giving them silent support. Juke Bois has become their PR platform. The positions of these characters seem highly untenable but that’s the reality.

Perhaps, the public servants – who form the mainstream intellectual elite of our society - are SMARTER than and far more intellectually superior to those high-profile guys in the mainstream media; and they know how to use these chaps and their political superiors. Indeed, in moments of crisis and disequilibrium, public servants know how to use those intellectually unsuspecting moguls. But eventually when equilibrium is restored, they dump and laugh at them.

The scenarios presented above lend much support to my earlier argument that “negotiation is a game with aims”.  The game will encompass any methodology or strategy that will likely bring results. The aim is to satisfy the acquisitive instincts, to walk away with their “pound of flesh”. Mind you, the public servants already have the intellectual and academic leverage - but they would, in their own Machiavellian way, welcome all the support they can get from even the most unsavoury elements in the media and also the politicians to help in the pursuit of their goals.

In that regard, the public servants are definitely SMART! But you might ask: if they are smart why did much of their frontline leadership (and membership, too) help to throw out King who gave them a generous 12.5% in the previous triennium and replaced him with Kenny who will give them a measly 4%? Why did they literally bite the hand that fed them so well? I can explain the resort to industrial action under the guise of a mysterious illness in terms of smartness but certainly not choosing Kenny over King.

Yet, I’m prepared to accept that they may be smart; but are they clever? Certainly, they have not demonstrated much cleverness. For if they were clever, they would have understood that industrial action to force the hand of a government to pay increases which are simply impossible are unreasonable.

Suffice it to say that strikes a thing of the past - almost obsolete. They were a “cold war” industrial relations strategy designed to bring the employer to heal; but the days of the cold war are now over! Homo sapiens, unless they subscribe to terrorism and sabotage, have become more rationally driven and are more inclined to compromise than confrontation. 

Perhaps too the collective and overwhelming smartness of the TUF conveniently may have displaced their cleverness! For how else could we explain their "lack of understanding" that the country can’t meet the request for wage increases. The  position is crystal clear: The gov't is "willing but unable" to meet the wage demands of the public servants and the PM presented facts to prove his position. In other words, it’s not that he does want to pay the public servants; it’s simply that the country, in the context of our fiscal precipice, cannot afford. That logic is simple and straightforward.

Now to Kenny last night: I must admit that he was impressive. He was both sublime and prime ministerial. He exuded confidence. His presentation had all the elements that I looked forward to. And I have to say, Kenny won last night’s round hands down! I have to say that he may be the sort of Prime Minister we need in a crisis situation and paradoxically that may be the main reason why the public servants supported him over King!

If King were blessed with a sense of rationality, he would have experienced a “sense of academia” listening to Kenny last night! He would have felt that he was sitting in a virtual lecture hall at a “university of governance and government” learning from “Professor Kenny” on how to deliver an address to the nation and how to handle an industrial relations crisis.

The PM address was in the main logically driven but interlaced with much emotional appeal! His analysis of the situation was structured and clinical, blowing away all of the 5.30-am “Drunken Master’s” myths, propaganda and misinformation; the PM was transparent and accountable, and was not afraid to disclose the truth about his own as well as his Minister’s salaries; and even more importantly he ended his address on a gracious note of national reconciliation and patriotism.

He began his address in a slightly reflective tone, almost expressing regret for what happened:

Over the past two days, our families and businesses have had to face a measure of disruption in their daily lives and routine. Our children have not been able to attend their schools because the vast majority of their teachers foretold, four days in advance, that they would all fall ill on designated days, Monday and Tuesday of this week and so would not be at work. So too did some civil servants, thus disrupting some of the services provided by the Government.”

The PM went on argue that:

“. . . the situation that confronts us is grave. While I have spoken about these facts repeatedly, there are some who choose to ignore our reality and create the illusion that “things” are better than we say.”

He also put the economic performance of St. Lucia in an historical perspective:

“Growth in our economy in recent years has been subdued, falling, it is estimated, to a low of -0.6% in 2012”.

“Today, for the first time in our fiscal history since Independence in 1979, the CDB has included us among a list of 7 countries in the Caribbean with a high and unsustainable debt. This the environment, this is the economy in which public sector unions have demanded that the government of St. Lucia pay salary increases initially of 16%, then 12%”, later 9.5% and now 6% with stipulated conditions”

There were 8 stipulated conditions for accepting the 6%. They are:
1.   One-off duty free concession on the importation of vehicles for travelling officers;
2.   Mechanisms to address the gap between the Government retirement age and the age at which officers are entitled to an NIC pension;
  1. Re-implementation of increment system;
4.   Completion of Reclassification exercise
5. Amendment of labour code to introduce agency fee, meaning the automatic deduction of union dues from salaries of all public officers, irrespective of membership;
6.   Divestment of crown lands to the TUF unions for resale to members
7.   Invest money in cooperative banks for on-lending to TUF union members at reasonable rates of interest
8.   Expedition of mechanisms to facilitate the early payment of tax refund to union members.

The cost of government’s proposal to pay public servants a 4% salary increase plus other allowance/benefits is $42 million. Annual adjustment to the wage bill will cost government $20 million.

And then he brought the curtains down in the most categorical and intellectually honest fashion:
“I appreciate that all parties are tired of the negotiating process.  The members of the Public Service Unions say that they are tired and that is why they became ill. The members of the private sector and our citizens who require government services on a daily basis are anxious for normalcy to return.

Our country needs peace and stability, not upheaval at this time.”

“The Gov’t of St. Lucia cannot and will not go further than the 4% increase in wages it has offered… For the gov’t, the option is clear: it’s either wage restraint or retrenchment . . . It seems to me the parties have arrived at an impasse. In these circumstances, I wish to urge that the matter be resolved peacefully by arbitration. I propose that the parties appoint a three-member arbitration panel . . .  Once the panel is constituted, hearings could be held in full glare of the public. The Government agrees without reservation or condition that it would be bound by the decision of the panel. I urge our unions to consider and accept this proposal to bring closure to this unhappy situation.”

But yet, he left a window open:

“. . . I hope all parties can find common ground in the days ahead. I hope sensible, conscientious and realistic discourse will prevail. We cannot afford to lose our country to the perils of economic woe and fiscal laxity.”

And finally he appealed to the nation’s patriotic instincts:

“We are travelling through turbulent waters, but we must face our fears with courage and wisdom. This is not a time for unrest. This is a time for us to produce more than before. This is not a time to be divided but rather a time for national purpose. It is not a time to be banal and pedestrian.
Every Saint Lucian must be creative and participate positively in their country. We can do these things freely as an independent state, or we can be led down the road of forced adjustments, the road of harsh reforms and drastic impacts in the way we live.

“I hope that you have found clarity in my message to you this evening, for the issues discussed are not merely about Government and the Unions. This is about all of us. I urge that we put aside personalities, we put aside party and we put our country’s future wellbeing as paramount, so that we might progress together as one nation.

“May your home find blessings at this time, and a good evening to one and all.”  


Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Yes! Negotiation is a game with aims; but messing around with the education of our nation’s future in the name of negotiation is absolutely no game - and it is in this “frame of reference” that I have penned this article – rather “angrily” today.

My tender sensibilities were battered when I saw “helpless and innocent kids” with satchels on their backs walking back home in the full heat of the mid-morning sun, forfeiting their education in the name of a “mystery illness” affecting their teachers. I said, “Something must be wrong here” and “Someone must be blamed!” for this sorry state of affairs.

But “what is wrong?” and “who should be blamed?” are not easy questions to answer. The teachers will blame the authorities and vice versa the authorities will blame the teachers and the cycle will continue. The never-ending back-and-forth-pendulum-type of irrational, frivolous behaviour that undermines our pursuit of excellence in the education and other sectors will persist.

If I may stick a pin here, my specific advice to “educators” is not only endeavor to impart the age-old virtues of honesty and integrity in their students; but equally to “live it” through practice. Full stop!

The nation is obviously in a state of quandary and rapidly approaching a crisis point! At this “crossroad” moment in our history, it is apparent that the need sound and honest and steady leadership at all levels in the hierarchy to avert a potential disaster has emerged; and the action of the TUF has been left wanting in that regard! The TUF’s industrial action has been a counter-instance to that pursuit of that type of leadership!
Contrary to decisions taken at two separate general meetings convened by the SLTU and CSA, the hierarchy of the said unions deny ever taking industrial action against the state. Is that acceptable leadership? Instead, the TUF claim that they have merely been inflicted by a wave of “public service-specific” mystery illness which has rendered them incapable of reporting to work. The epidemic, which surfaced on Thursday February 21, will continue until payday (Tuesday, February 26, 2013).

The illogic in the Unions argument is stark and seems to have sparked a ripple effect across the land – one arguably that is in proportion to the magnitude of their mystery illness. At one extreme end, some pundits seem to believe that the national epidemic is an invention to justify an extended independence holiday over a six-day period at the expense of taxpayers, suggesting the nature of the epidemic may be rooted in an allergic reaction to productivity. At the other extreme end, some believe that the action is not fully justified but extremely necessary to bring the GNT to its senses.

Whatever the case may be and by the time the mystery epidemic disappears into thin air at midnight tonight, the resultant cost implications to the state will be enormous, costing taxpayers an irrecoverable loss in the order of the magnitude of millions of dollars. What’s even sorrier will be the unquantifiable loss of instructional time that this mystery illness has caused, and especially during a period when we have insurmountable problems in mathematics at all levels of education, from MST to CXC.

It is therefore incumbent on those entrusted with the responsibility to manage the affairs of state to address two major public concerns: firstly, how are we going to mitigate against the losses to the taxpayer and secondly, how are going to make up for the loss of instructional time.

Indeed, the past few days have sunk the ship of state into a black hole of unnecessary conflict which was clearly avoidable. Why have our public servants in the midst of ongoing competitive and healthy negotiations where there is seemingly no impasse (save for “a race against a time frame”) taken that premature action?

At the beginning of the negotiation period, they sought a highly unrealistic and exorbitant raise of 15%, claiming the implementation of VAT and the increased cost of living as the bases for their request. Closer to the end of the period, they drastically shaved their request down to 6%.

Apparently, the TUF seem to have got both the logic of the “mystery epidemic” and “math of the increase” totally wrong.  Despite having voted to take industrial action under the veil of mystery illness, they cowardly persisted with the argument that their action was on medical and not industrial ground. It’s a “logic” that is untenable and many of us are uncomfortable with. We would have preferred the unions to have come out and declare with honesty that they were taking strong industrial action to protest (among other things) the pace of the negotiations and the quantum of the offer by the GNT.

Many of us argue that if they had taken that position, they would have at least been true to themselves and to the spirit of the resolution they passed at their general meetings to proceed on “sick-out”. Perhaps, they would have also received more empathy from parents and the wider public.

Secondly, the TUF also got their Math blatantly wrong. A 15% VAT does not translate to a 15% increase in the cost of living. A quick “calculus” reveals that a 5% increase (which is what increase sought is now approaching) is more in keeping with a 15% VAT. The 66% WASCO impending tariff increase is a statistically insignificant variable in the scheme of things. The monthly salaries of TUFF members is estimated to range from $8000 to $1500, with a mean salary of about $3500; if the monthly average water bill of a public servant is less than $100, then the projected tariff increase for water will translate to only a small fraction of a percent of the mean salary. Hence, the net impact of VAT and increase in the water tariff will only be in the range of a 5%.

Given the figures above, then why would the TUF initially request an exorbitant 15% and not 6%? Also, why would they seek all of those exorbitant “executive benefits” like duty-free on cars for themselves, an amendment to the pension structure to qualify them for huge gratuities etc? Why would the TUF seek a pound of flesh from an economy on its deathbed? Why would TUF want to impose that crushing burden of a massive salary increase on the taxpayers? And even most importantly, why have they not responded to the PM’s offer of independent arbitration?

Haven’t the GNT sufficiently explained the issues and the cost-prohibitive implications to the TUF? Why haven’t the PM come to the rescue?

Let’s hope that the PM will come to the rescue of the nation on those issues when he addresses us on Wednesday night and bring this protracted negotiations to a satisfactory conclusion and restore St. Lucia on a path to industrial peace.

Let’s hope also that he will be cautiously rational and not boldly confrontational as he was the first time. He should use the address not only to clearly explain the key and thorny issues on the table that may have precipitated the industrial action by the public servants (and how he plans to resolve them) but also to bring a message of hope and goodwill to nation. In other words, he should not come to airwaves like the Merchant of Venice with “knife and bowl in hand” seeking his own pound of flesh from the hierarchy of the TUF as a cure for the mystery illness. I’m sure the Doctor knows much, much better!