The old wage negotiating habits must die

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

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The radical, firebrand trade union movement of yesteryear has morphed into little more than a wage negotiating machinery that brings little or no value to the workplace of today.

The decay has deepened as the great trade unionists of yore have disappeared from the stage, one by one, whether by death, retirement or in search of self-interests, leaving behind a pale shadow of its former self.

Some names that come readily to mind include Alexander Bustamante; Michael Manley; Hugh Shearer; Carlyle Dunkley; Lascelles Beckford; Hopeton Caven; E Lloyd Taylor; Roy Thompson; Cliff Stone; Errol Anderson; Reggie Ennis; Milton Scott and a constellation of other stars of the bargaining table.

In respect of the Government's negotiating machinery, the names of the usually unseen personalities in the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service change with time but little else in respect of bargaining style and strategy.

The Government starts out knowing how far it can go with its wage offer to the public sector trade unions, after calculating what the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will accept, then offering from the bottom up, until it is forced to the point beyond which it cannot go.

Trade unions, for their part, start with an impossible figure and work down to the point where they believe they can go no further. They will meet somewhere near the middle. It will be retroactive so that the workers will get a lump sum. The agreement will be trumpeted, with news cameras flashing. And after two years, the process will repeat.

Yesterday's edition of this newspaper tells us that the Government and the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions (JCTU) have inched closer to a settlement of the current public sector pay dispute, and that an agreement is likely within a week.

This follows the introduction of improved offers from the Government on several fringe benefits, as well as a new four-year wage package, which brings the total increase over the period to 16 per cent.

If this childish game must end, perhaps we can listen to Mrs Helene Davis-Whyte, the president of the JCTU and Mr Danny Roberts, Public Sector Transformation Oversight Committee co-chair, two remnants of the old trade union movement who seem to be converts to modern trade unionism.

Mrs Davis-Whyte, speaking at a forum on public sector wage negotiations last week, argued that the time had come for wage negotiations in Jamaica to focus more on “interest-based bargaining” that advanced the concerns of both sides.

Mr Roberts, a former vice-president of the National Workers Union agrees: “…The traditional approach to collective bargaining in Jamaica and the Caribbean is predicated on a 'zero-sum' basis, that fosters conflict and power bargaining, with the endgame set to have winners and losers.”

He suggests that an agreement can be reached if the parties look at their underlying interests instead of stated positions.

“In the final analysis, we have to come up with a solution that (will be) a win for the workers and a win for the country, too,” the veteran trade unionist said of the way forward.

Old habits die hard, but these old bargaining habits must die.

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