*File photos
*File photos

Bermuda could face a summer of discontent on the industrial -relations front, ex-union chief Derrick Burgess warned yesterday.

And workers — squeezed between a global recession on one side and a desire to cut costs in the both the public and private sectors on the other — could end up taking action to protect their living standards.

But business consultant Peter Everson urged that negotiations now have to be carried out in a spirit of realism and in the light of a shrinking economy.

Former BIU president Mr Burgess, a Minister in the last PLP Government and shadow Public Works Minister, agreed the -temperature is rising on industrial relations. He said: “It probably is because of uncertainty with regards to the Government getting rid of people.”

He added: “There will always be confrontation if there is no respect for labour. The only tool labour has is to withdraw its labour and take to the streets.

“All workers want is their rights respected and if they want to be part of a union, that’s their right.”

Mr Burgess said that employers were aiming to make cutbacks in jobs and conditions as the recession tightened its grip.

But he said: “As long as employers take that stance, you can get this type of behaviour. You can get confrontation, but we need to be at peace right now.”

Mr Burgess added: “Workers today seem to understand the world recession better than anybody.”

And he said that hotel employees had seen wage freezes for three years, while public sector employers had not seen increases in their paycheques for two to three years.

Mr Burgess added: “Workers are playing their part – but they are also saying the price of food is still going up, there is no control on healthcare costs, no control on their light bills. Workers are saying we are prepared to play our part, but we need some controls on food prices, electricity and mortgages down town.”

And he said: “You can only push a person so far and when you push them too far in a corner, there is only one thing they can do to get out of that corner – fight their way out. That’s not what they want to do, but if they are forced into it, that’s what they’re going to do.”

A dispute at KFC over the collective bargaining agreement simmered for months, while the BIU has held meetings which have paralysed public transport at peak times.

Post Offices closed early last Thursday for a general staff meeting and other unions are scheduled to have meetings to discuss the future.

Economist Peter Everson, a business consultant and member of the Bermuda Chamber of Commerce economics committee, stressed he was not involved in negotiations on either side.

But he added: “When it comes to contract negotiations, it becomes tough to reach agreement if both groups can’t agree what the background is. If they can understand and agree what’s happening, it becomes discussions as normal – but not talking about how big the wage rises will be, it’s what the cuts will be.

“These discussions have been going on in the private sector for several years.” He added: “From reading and listening to what people seem to be doing, I think the economy has moved past an inflection point – four years ago, it was quite clear in everybody’s mind that if the economy didn’t grow next year, it would grow the following year or the year after that.

“People got used to getting real wage increases, people got used to the fact that their standard of living improved over successive periods of five years.

“It’s taken some time for people to understand that there are home grown issues. When these are combined with the overseas issues, it’s got to the point that Bermuda’s economy has been shrinking for four years in a row and that has consequences. Everybody in Bermuda is worse off than they were five years ago.”

Kevin Grant, leader of the white collar Bermuda Public Services Union, which represents civil servants, said: “For some workers there is always going to be a little bit of tension when it comes to the external matters – unions have to deal with that on a day to day basis.

“There is sometimes a misconception on the part of the public – we have to carry out the wishes of our members and that sometimes gets a bit misconstrued.”

Mr Grant said that – while he could not speak for the BIU – the KFC dispute appeared to be an attack on the collective bargaining agreement.

He added: “When things are rejected or not put back into the agreement, then these things are of concern. When collective bargaining agreements are attacked, it should be of concern to all unions.”

Mr Grant added that relations between the various unions had gone “from strength to strength” – which should be an example for employers and government.

And he said: “The collaborative effort we have established now is something which should set a precedent for other stakeholders to come to the table – that’s in relation to the tripartite aspect we’ve been trying to push.

“All trades unions realise that in order to turn this country around, there needs to be a collaborative effort and the unions have set a precedent in coming together in these recent negotiations to show that cooperation can work.

“The interests of the country are at stake here and that should be at the top of our list.” n