Threat of industrial action at Bahamas Electric Corporation exposes workers’ untapped power

When Labour Day rolled around this year I was so very unenthusiastic given the current condition of the labour movement in The Bahamas. This past year there have been many revelations regarding the precarious state of workers here due, in my opinion, to the anti-labour stance of the government and the failure of some union leaders to work in the best interests of their members.

Most workers, even if they’re union members, are dispensable. Generally speaking, businesses treat employees as they wish, often times in obvious contravention of labour laws. Unfortunately, when a battle is waged between workers and corporations, the corporations usually win hands down – often times with the help of government.

A few days ago things went a bit differently though. Members of the Bahamas Electrical Workers Union (BEWU) employed at the Bahamas Electricity Corporation (BEC) gave full support to the Bahamas Electrical Utility Managerial Union (BEUMU) following the suspension of Erwin Dean – a Manager at the Corporation and President of BEUMU. The members of both unions threatened industrial action if Mr. Dean was not reinstated and within 24 hours he was back to work.

Without a doubt, it was the threat of approximately 800 line staff members of the BEWU, accounting for about 80% of the corporation’s workers, taking power into their own hands that resulted in the swift action by the corporation’s executives.

While it seems that both unions are pleased that Mr. Dean is now back to work, there are some deeper issues that BEWU members want addressed.

Early last year the Nassau Guardian reported that line staff workers at BEC were concerned about the potential privatization of the corporation and job security, as well as accountability and transparency within the BEWU.

A BEWU member who spoke to on condition of anonymity told us: “For the last… six years, workers rights [are] being infringed upon. Especially in [the] customer service [department]… an average of 20 persons over the last five years have lost their job in customer service…these people have won their cases in courts. There’s no regard for workers’ rights period.”

The source opined that BEWU supported the manager’s union because of a general, “lack of protocol [at the corporation]” that has led to losses for both unions and subsequent low morale among workers.

We were also told that there is an unprofessional atmosphere at the corporation and a lack of a career path and adequate safety equipment for workers, as well as insufficient staff levels to effectively carry out the corporation’s mandates.

While a decent pay and benefits are important to workers, according to online sources, workers also want opportunities to develop their skills and a career, a workplace that is comfortable physically and socially, and well equipped, and honest, and transparent leaders.

“This is not a political thing,” the source stressed, “…there has been the same executive team (at the corporation) for the past two administrations.” And so for a decade, under both the FNM and PLP and various labour leaders, the demands of the workers at BEC have gone unmet.

Workers everywhere want the same thing. They want to be treated fairly and compensated properly based on the tremendous value that their labour produces. Sadly, these “basics” are often seen as too hefty a demand (even on the part of some labour leaders), resulting in huge compromises that leave workers with nothing but crumbs.

As this recent threat of industrial action at BEC shows, however, front line workers across this country are becoming more conscious of and more willing to yield their collective strength and enormous power. The next step should be the use of this power for their own selfish interests, to press for demands that will directly benefit them as a class and no one else.

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