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Gov't missed the bargaining boat, says Danny Roberts

BY BALFORD HENRY Observer senior reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, September 17, 2012    

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HEAD of the Hugh Lawson Shearer Trade Union Education Institute (TUEI), Danny Roberts, says that the Government may have missed an opportunity to engage in a new form of collective bargaining with its employees, based on a win-win outcome, which could have avoided the adversarial atmosphere which is being created.

The trade union veteran was responding to Friday's main story in the Jamaica Observer, which disclosed that trade unions representing public sector workers had rejected the Government's appeal for wage restraint and, instead, had submitted a 25-point wage claim to the Ministry of Finance and Planning.

Roberts said he is not surprised that public sector unions are claiming, and expect to receive, increases in wages and salaries for the 2012-2014 period.

"It naturally follows the pattern of our collective bargaining praxis over the years, where governments have always declared beforehand their inability to meet wage demands and have sought to constrain wage increases, and workers through their trade unions have always resorted to the language of 'demand' rather than 'negotiate' for higher than expected wage increases," Roberts explained.

He said that the nature of the bargaining process is "inherently conflictual and disruptive" and, against the background of a wage freeze in the 2010 - 2012 period, there was going to be some amount of 'push back', some amount of resistance to any further call for wage restraint.

Roberts added that through the TUEI, with the support of the Department of Management Studies at the University of the West Indies (UWI) had sought to interest the Government in a new form of wage negotiating known as integrative bargaining (also called "interest-based bargaining", "win-win bargaining").

This is a strategy in which parties collaborate to find a mutually beneficial solution to their disputes.

On May 31, when the public sector trade unions met with representatives of the Government at Jamaica House to sign an agreement confirming the 2010/2012 wage freeze, the unions indicated that it could be the last wage freeze, at least, for the time being.

"Most of our members are not happy (with the wage freeze) but we recognise that we all have to play a part," Vice-President of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions (JCTU) Helene Davis-Whyte said at signing.

She pointed out that in accepting the wage freeze, the public sector workers recognised the role of the Government in ensuring economic growth which, in turn, contributes to a better standard of living for them. Otherwise they would continually be negotiating salary increases which are wiped out within the span of the agreement.

Davis-Whyte added that in furtherance of this principle, the trade union movement was looking at the concept of win-win or interest-based bargaining. She urged the Government to recognise the mistakes of previous administrations in terms of sustaining the trust and confidence of the workers, and avoid breaching agreements made in good faith.

Dr Peter Phillips paid tribute to the unions and the workers for being "forthright, frank, professional, resolute, and patriotic" in the discussions leading up to the agreement. He said the agreement was a signal that the parties had found common ground during a period which tested the maturity of the nation's democracy and its commitment to reducing its debt.

He also said that the Government had hold the line against suggestions that the test of commitment to fiscal prudence was the willingness to shed jobs.

Additionally, a workshop was held June 5 to 7, under the theme: 'Reinventing Collective Bargaining in the Public Sector', organised by the TUEI and the Department of Management Studies, with the full backing and endorsement of the Ministry of Finance and Planning. Guest speaker was Dean of the School of Labour and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois Professor Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, an expert on win-win negotiations.

So, with all that goodwill, what went wrong?

According to Roberts, little or no interest was shown by the ministry in the subject after June.

"I suspected they didn't see it as a priority," he said.

The interest-based bargaining model, which the TUEI initiated in June, and out of which emerged a framework document for constructive engagement between the unions and the Govenment about how to create value and mitigate harm, could have changed the context for negotiation, if the Government had acted on the initiatives earlier, Robert insists.

"We cannot avoid the strictures of an IMF agreement, which inevitably carries conditionalities calling for wage freeze, wage cut or layoffs. The situation in countries like Ukraine, Latvia and Hungary have been similar in terms of the IMF's impact on collective bargaining arrangement for public sector workers. Jamaica would be no different. In fact, a recent study showed that 31 of 41 countries have been worse off under an IMF Agreement," Robert said.

"So while an agreement with the IMF is critical in terms of Jamaica's accessibility to credit in the international financial market, it simply cannot be represented as important to opening the door for further borrowing at a cheaper rate. This is reinforcing the debt trap," he added

According to him, the missing link, at both the collective bargaining level and the macro level, was the parallel track, where the Government engages the stakeholders in a discussion on growth and productivity, on how best to increase the purchasing power of the working class so as to positively impact aggregate demand and stimulate business activities.

"Simply put, how do we generate growth and increase productivity? That must be the preoccupation going forward, and it is around that mantra that the entire country needed to be seized and mobilised; that's the parallel track that we need to run on," Roberts concluded.

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