Time to Flex Brains Instead of Muscles

I have created a new collective noun for the dictionaries—a conspiracy of Bahamian unions.

Just when I thought I could rest my pen for a moment, I learned that an alphabet soup of labour unions—the BNU, CPSA, BDU, BUT, UTEB, BIMAWU, BCPOU, BCPMU, BHCAWU—have donned boxing gloves, threatening to go the full rounds in the ring with current government administration. In addition, it seems that the jungle drums are sounding at our premier resort, which is second only to government as an employer of Bahamians. Going by the rhetoric of union leaders in the news reports and the placards sprout like poisonous mushrooms at a recent protest on Bay Street in downtown Nassau. What are the odds that there is not a collective brewing of a witch’s pot in the capital?

John Pinder, acting director of labour has given his take on the recent uproar. Once a fearsome negotiator in the opposing corner, Pinder noted in a statement to The Nassau Guardian:

“I think, some of the unions are, what I call, flexing their muscles at this time…when they start to negotiate, if things aren’t going the right way, they tend to figure the first thing to do is threaten a strike.

“No government wants a strike on their watch and so that is supposed to, I guess, frighten the employer and the employer is supposed to fall on their knees and try as best they can to resolve the matter,” Pinder is reported to have said.

Now, as easily as turn a page of potboiler mystery, a leader of one of the umbrella trade union congresses has boldly launched the dreaded term “national strike” as a strong possibility—and indeed it is. Many of the fringe dwellers of New Providence, who see confusion, especially politically motivated, as an opportunity for pay for play. The character of this ready to rumble troop reminds me of a description of the ancient Israelites in the Book of Hosea:

“Ephraim is like a dove,
easily deceived and senseless—
now calling to Egypt,
now turning to Assyria.

I believe that labour unions are necessary in a democracy; so are freedom of speech and protest. If we don’t stand for what right, who will? If right is to emerge from our agitation, we must plan for right. We have to do research, answer some essential questions, reflect.

What do we wish to achieve? Have we set on just one avenue for accomplish our purpose, or should we try several? Who or what are the obstacles to the achievement of our objectives? Can the person or team on the other side have the means to supply our demands? Is the envisioned solution fair, taking into consideration the community, the country? Or, does it have that all-for-me baby vibe? Most important, are there parallel situations anywhere around the world that could provide insights into potential pitfalls and benefits?

There just happens to be a situation in France that bears an uncanny resemblance to the current Bahamian situation as concerns the motivation for protest. The troubles began as peaceful citizens’ marches protesting rising fuel prices, new taxes and the high cost of living. The main complaint was that the development placed a disproportionate burden the working and middle classes. The protesters placed the greater part of the blame on the shoulders of Emmanuel Macron, the President of France and have been calling for his resignation.

So far, it sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Here in The Bahamas, the reasons for the protests and union action have their roots in much the same issues as those in France. As in the latter country, it is this country’s leader who is bearing the blame for the economy and every other difficulty. There are increasing calls for ‘Minnis’ to ‘go’. So far, it has all been peaceful. Just this week, however, the tone has changed. Threats of ‘national strike’ have arisen.

God forbid that what happened next in Europe should show its ugly head here. Masked and violent groups saw the protests as a window of opportunity, turning an increasing number of cities in France into war zones. Do are people realize how difficult it is to corral the horses after the gates have been breached?

There is no security in the fact that the membership of most of the Bahamian unions engaged in the protests are supposed to be professionals and highly educated. As local newspapers give daily evidence, so many personal agendas that go against community peace and progress are constantly in play. It is not unthinkable that those who have generated those agendas would not be averse to promoting mischief, pulling the strings of that segment of the populace who thrive on disruption and open violence.

The Bahamian government must bear its share of the blame for its combination of ill-considered promises during the 2017 general election, a great lack of transparency and a weak communications programme.

What is fundamentally at fault in The Bahamas is a negative developmental pattern that repeats from generation to generation. It seems that no matter who is in power, government has continued to support an unequal society. It seems that no matter the new economic policies introduced, the same families and groups grow richer, while the working and middle classes become more and more burdened, any appreciable gains often wiped out by new tariffs and taxes.

What’s the solution? I suggest that opportunities for wealth creation must embrace a larger proportion of the citizenry. Why for example did the last administration stop the promised public offering that would have given Bahamians a real share in the communications industry? I am not so naïve to believe that there will be perfect equality socially and economically beyond the precincts of heaven, but we can do more to close the gap so that fewer Bahamian will have to fear not being able to pay their electricity bills or feed their families regularly. We must work to reduce the number of people who face foreclosure on their homes and lower the disproportionate number of young men and women who are discouraged workers or unable to secure employment because of poor educational achievement and lack of marketable skills.

We can begin by formulating a national school curriculum that addresses the realities of our heritage, culture and natural abilities more nearly. Why, for example, have we put so little emphasis on building the creative industries, when so many Bahamians are well-endowed creatively? We can begin by lifting the heavy and biased hand of partisan politics from the distribution of the choicest opportunities. We can go even further when government administrations begin to appoint to key positions people who actually have the skills to do their assigned job and are endowed with the intellect and experience to innovate and create.

We will approach the ideal even more closely with an intelligent and objective arbitration system. An even greater distance towards equality will breach the national horizon when unions share in the ownership of national problems and solutions that benefit the majority rather than their membership only. It is a long-held dream of this writer that one day the approval of local unions will one day be recognized as imprimaturs of excellence, instead of shelters for mediocrity or worse.

Can we do it? Will we?

The handling of the current tensions will be most informative. The actions taken by unions and government will foreshadow the future. Let them be reasoned, mature and, above all, humane and national. It’s time for more brainpower and less loud mout’.

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