The contention between the Public Services Association (PSA) and the Chief Personnel Office (CPO) is brewing and threatening to erupt into a serious stand-off between the Government and organised labour. And we say organised labour because the non-PSA unions have indicated they are standing with the public servants, many of the unions having their own current negotiations or those coming soon. The experienced unions and their executives understand quite clearly that when trends are set in one part of the public service, those settlements will dictate the way forward all around and so the unions do themselves a favour by standing in solidarity with each other to get the best packages.
It goes almost without saying that given the state of the national economy, still very much in recovery mode from the recession of the last two years, the last thing required at the moment is a prolonged industrial dispute spread across several sectors of the economy having the effect of stalling economic production. Perhaps with this possibility in mind, Finance Minister Winston Dookeran, an economist by training and pursuit, was driven to express the view/hope in his 2011 budget presentation that the public sector negotiations would be settled by the end of this year. But with the experiences of the last couple weeks, the minister may now be recalculating such a projection.
On the one hand, PSA president Watson Duke has been talking about a 15 per cent settlement over the three years of the agreement. The CPO, on the other hand, is standing resolute at one per cent over the same three-year period. There is obviously quite an amount of uncharted territory in-between those two positions and to hope to close the gap in two months must be unrealistic. Now added to that unrealism is the reported position of the CPO, that is according to the PSA president. As Mr Duke tells it, one week the CPO wants to focus on settling allowances first and then the following week wants to first settle salaries.
Such a dancing around would give credence to the view that instead of attempting to close the gap between offer and demand, the CPO seems to be playing for time or attempting to frustrate the unions. At the meeting and demonstration of this week, even government-appointed senator David Abdulah was moved to describe the offer of the CPO as provocative and disrespectful, with similar and even stronger sentiments being expressed by other labour leaders. What must happen to avoid the bubbling conflict is for the Government to place a serious offer on the table, one which could be honestly discussed by the two sides. Indeed, Mr Duke committed himself to negotiating in good faith when a "reasonable offer" is made.
It seems a logical position for the trade unionist to take. This newspaper is obviously not in a position and does not have any desire or interest to tell the Government and CPO what constitutes a "reasonable offer." However, if they are to be realistic, the current proposal has little chance of seriously enticing the unions to the bargaining table for meaningful discussion. On the other hand, all of the labour leaders must be cognisant of the fact that the economy is not in the shape it was two years ago, revenues are no longer flowing at the level of US$140 a barrel for oil and US$15 for natural gas, and so too have the prices in the petrochemical sector declined dramatically. And while it seems a little scare-mongering to say that the deficit would reach $12 billion if agreement is reached on the PSA's terms, the union must recognise that it also has a responsibility to protect the jobs of its members.