Wage talks rejected, court sets tribunal dates for unions over 4% rejection

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

PSA president Leroy Baptiste outside the Industrial Court in Port of Spain on Monday. – ROGER JACOB

LEADERS of five top trade unions in the public sector voiced their upset to reporters at the Industrial Court, Port of Spain, on Monday, as the Chief Personnel Officer (CPO) rejected a bid for them to return to the bargaining table for wage negotiations.

Instead, the issue will be heard by the court’s special tribunal next year.

Industrial Court president Deborah Thomas-Felix presided over a three-hour case-management conference with the representatives of the unions and the CPO to agree on a series of dates for tribunal hearings, negotiated separately for each of the five unions.

While the unions had argued that fruitful wage talks were under way, the CPO’s attorney Seenath Jairam did not agree to the unions’ attempts at conciliation.

The unions have continuously rejected the government’s offer of a four per cent wage increase for 2014-2019. The proposal represents zero, zero, two, zero, zero, two for each year successively.

The offer was accepted by the Amalgamated Workers Union and the defence force.

A dejected-looking Ceron Richards, president of the Prisons Officers Association, leaves the Industrial Court in Port of Spain on Monday. – ROGER JACOB

In his winding-up of the budget debate in the House on October 4, Finance Minister Colm Imbert said the CPO negotiates with workers in the civil service, the prison service, the fire service, the police service, the defence force and the teaching service.

“When negotiations break down, the negotiations or the disputes are referred to a special tribunal, which is comprised of senior members of the Industrial Court.”

He said there are approximately 20,000 daily-rated workers within the mainstream public service.

“I want to report that four unions have been referred to the special tribunal. Fire, prisons, police, TTUTA and the NUGFW have gone through the process, because they are not referred to the special tribunal, of sending the matter to the Industrial Court.”

But, he said there is always the option, along the way, of the trade unions asking for conciliation outside of the tribunal.

On Monday, Thomas-Felix said conciliation was a voluntary process, implying both sides must consent.

In court were PSA head Leroy Baptiste, Fire Service Association (FSA) head Leo Ramkissoon, and Police Social and Welfare Division head Gideon Dickson – all of whom addressed the court on behalf of their unions – plus TTUTA head Martin Lum Kin and Prison Officers Association (POA) head Ceron Richards.

Accusing the Government of not acting in good faith towards them, the labour leaders argued for wage talks by saying they were not in a dispute.

Jairam responded, “We have no instructions that there should be conciliation.”

The POA’s chief negotiator Burton Hill said his association had been on a firm path towards arriving at common ground with the CPO. He said the association made headway on the issue of someone acting in a post before retirement, declaring,”The CPO responded.” Likewise, on the matter of qualification allowance, he said, “The CPO said he will look at it.”

But Hill then admitted, “We don’t have a memorandum of agreed items.” Saying the association has letters with agreements on a number of things, he complained, “We were blindsided by the Minister of Finance saying the matters were referred to a special tribunal.”

Hill said correspondence dated September 26 showed agreement on several allowances, as he said the association was now taken aback by news it was heading to the tribunal.

Thomas-Felix said, “There is a view that different things had been agreed to.”

Jairam replied that the relevant law allows the Finance Minister to refer matters to a special tribunal.

Thomas-Felix asked, “So the door has closed for discussion?”

TTUTA president Martin Lum Kin, centre, with executive members. – ROGER JACOB

Seenath said yes.

Hill argued,”We have documents that we were engaged in agreeable discussions up to September 26.”

Thomas-Felix said,”Present those things to the special tribunal.”

Speaking for the PSA, Baptiste said, “It takes two hands to clap. But it appears not to be the case.”

He said he had only learnt the union was supposedly in a dispute when he got a letter to go to court, which he viewed as a subtle threat.

“It was shocking to me.”

Arguing for conciliation, Baptiste added,”The court witnessed today three associations all unaware they had a dispute with the CPO.”

Initially, the PSA, FSA and POA agreed for their future court hearings to be consolidated in the interest of time, but later adopted the positions of TTUTA and the PSWA for separate hearings.

The PSA is expected to have hearings on January 19, 20 and 30, and half-day hearings on March 14, 16 and 17.

The FSA will have hearings on April 12, 13 and 14.

The PSWA has hearings on February 15 and 24, and March 13, the POA on May 2, 4 and 5, and TTUTA on May 12 and 19, and June 9.

Union leaders complained to reporters about ongoing financial hardships faced by their members awaiting their salary updates amid rising prices of food and gasoline.

TTUTA past second vice-president Kyrla Robertson-Thomas said, “Collective agreements for TTUTA have been outside since 2014-2017. This is the first one we have on the table. Our first hearing date is in May, so I will tell you we are not happy people today.”

Ramkissoon said the State’s rejection of conciliation was “very, very disheartening and demotivating” to his officers.

“While the minister said clearly during his delivery in Parliament that opportunity would be given, if we so desire, to further discuss around the table and have conciliation in the interest of hammering out a fair settlement, we find that under the cloak or under the protection of the court, they are holding a different position.”

Dickson said his association was not taken aback by the State’s decision but had planned for it.

“We are disheartened to know the State would have shown their hands at this time, to not operate in what we would want to consider to be good faith. That’s of serious concern to police officers.

“We will be engaging our members in the next two weeks.”

Baptiste alleged “a complete undermining” of TT’s industrial relations fabric, with the court used as a whip to oppress workers, with the government’s attorney refusing to engage in conciliation.

“Notwithstanding the posturing of the State, we will continue to engage in the process of trying to bring about a resolution of the terms and conditions of our members even before the hearing on January 19.”

Richards was taken aback by the day’s events.

“We always thought the option for conciliation would always been on the table, based on the utterances of the minister in Parliament. We are very disappointed there is no option for conciliation.”