For Christians and quasi believers alike, the season of Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and culminates on Easter Sunday, which marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ following his Good Friday crucifixion.
Christians see Lent as a time of penance, a time for peace and the abandonment of sinful activities and doing to others what you would have others do to you.
This time around, however, the last thing in the Lenten air was love and goodwill. At any rate, in Saint Lucia,where the government and public unions were locked in battle over money. Protest marches, vitriolic press releases and threats of retrenchment easily overwhelmed whatever was being preached from our church pulpits.
From as far back as January the evening news began with word of more trouble and unrest, sickouts involving teachers, fire fighters and other public service workers. The CSA, which represents more than one thousand civil servants, finally went on strike.
Over the last several weeks, however, cracks began to appear in the walls of Jericho—the Trade Union Federation, that is, the body representing the major unions here and the one bargaining with the Government Negotiating Team. Among the first serious assaults to TUF’s armor plating was the acceptance of the government’s offer of four percent by the Police Association, earlier turned down by the federation.
There were also meek calls from once vociferous TUF agitators to accept the government’s offer. Still, TUF’s president Julian Monrose and his team refused to yield, even with the fight now seemingly between just the Government and the CSA.
A two-week strike by some public servants seemed to have had little impact on the country’s regular business activities. Some citizens actually were heard on TV saying productivity levels were at least the same as before the public service strike.
The negotiations between the teachers union and others and the GNT also seemed at a standstill all of last week. However, last Saturday, traditionally referred to as Samedi Gloria, the day before joyful Easter with its traditional celebrations, the TUF was dealt another debilitating blow when several of its aligned members sounded their trumpets in unabashed acceptance of the Government’s offer of four percent, “with additional benefits.”
It was the coming of the end of the triennium period for wage negotiations (March 31, 2013) and it was with much anxiety that public servants, after receiving their salaries as of March 26 went home on Holy Thursday, waiting on their leader’s next move.
The GNT would not rest and decided to continue to break bread with the various Unions and Associations—even over the holiest and most solemn of Christian days: Good Friday.
Now triumphant, the GNT on Saturday, March 30, signed collective agreements with the Saint Lucia Medical and Dental Association, The Saint Lucia Teachers Union, The Correctional Officers and The Fire Service Association. All accepted the Government’s four percent increase at a signing ceremony at the Greaham Louisy Building in full glare of the media—and much to the chagrin of some union leaders who were still holding out.
The STAR later learned that some TUF members had objected to media presence on Saturday, perhaps fearful that the publicity would further erode their bargaining strength, not to say what public confidence they still retained. This may have explained Julian Monrose’s pained demeanor when he walked into the room Saturday to sign not as TUF but as President of the Saint Lucia Teachers Union. When invited to make a statement before signing the agreement he aggressively refused.
The first group to sign Saturday was the Saint Lucia Medical and Dental Association, with acting Labour Commissioner George Melchoir offering first a statement. He pointed out that over the last few years the island had been smeared by an uncivil and sometimes volatile industrial climate.
“Not only have we witnessed a tense and extensively drawn-out negotiation between affiliated members of the TUF and the Government Negotiation Team leading to this and
other signings which are going to take place today,” he said, “but as we speak,
other members of the TUF have yet to conclude negotiations and have opted to engage in industrial action.” Moreover: “From the public sector to the essential services, just a few weeks ago we were at the threshold of industrial unrest. Two of the leading utility company members had almost engaged in industrial action.”
He went on to say that the Department of Labour continued on a regular basis to provide mediatory services between disputing parties.
“Since the primary function of the Department of Labour is to encourage industrial peace among its constituents and to maintain a stable and harmonious industrial climate in Saint Lucia, it is indeed very gratifying to be here to witness the signing of this collective agreement,” Melchoir said, pointing to the general economic situation in Saint Lucia.
“We must work together to find ways to remedy the situation,” he said. “It is not a time for us to flex our muscles but ideally it is a time for us to exercise compassion and good judgment in dealing with the situation.”
Before signing, Dr Swami spoke on behalf of the dental and medical association. He revealed that his executive was new but had nevertheless faced the challenges of the past few months.
“We know the doctors working at the Victoria hospital,” he said. “We know the doctors working at St Jude’s hospital and also district medical officers. They are all working in really difficult situations.
It is really challenging for the doctors also and the negotiations have been very long. But at this juncture we’ve decided we will sign now, but also we need to continue to work and go through these negotiations further.”
Dr Swami thanked the GNT for understanding some of their difficulties and offering some “really minimum conditions. But it goes a long way.”
Head of the GNT Vern Gill then explained that Saturday’s proceedings were indeed “by design.”
“We tried to get it in before the end of the period which ends on March, 31, 2013 and we are happy that we have gotten to this point today in spite of all the difficulties that have been encountered along the way.”
Following the signing by the SLMDA, it was the turn of the SLTU, represented by Julian Monrose and Don Howell, General Secretary. After perusing the documents, the representatives signed but opted afterward to remain silent.
The Fire Service Association’s President Shane Felix was somewhat more forthcoming. He said the occasion was really to complete the process which began a few years ago between the Government of Saint Lucia and the Fire Service Association.
“We know that it has been a long drawn-out process and many challenges and back and forths and so on. But of course the fire association has a responsibility and the mandate coming from our members is that I should proceed with the signing of this agreement. So I am here today to do just that.”
Felix said he and his colleagues were looking forward to the “next triennium which starts in a day or so.”
Also signing on Saturday were representatives of the Correctional officers. With the room full of smiles, jovial and satirical comments Saturday, some may have anticipated that by Tuesday the CSA would have returned to the negotiating table and their strike called off. They anticipated in vain.
Following the long Easter weekend which ended on Monday April 1, normally referred to as All Fool’s Day, some CSA members were holding on to their strike mantra: nothing less than a 9.5 percent increase and certain conditions.
In an earlier address, the Prime Minister had put an offer of four percent before the TUF, while offering other groups additional incentives and benefits. He had also talked about the matter going to arbitration.
The Government had also turned down the TUF’s request for six percent plus conditions. The various Unions met afterward, with the CSA handing its leader Mary Isaac the mandate to go on strike following a meeting attended by about seven hundred.
Some members had also called for protest action, but so far there have been no marches or public demonstrations, generating more public speculation about the CSA’s strength and influence. It’s anyone’s guess what will be the CSA and TUF’s next move.