Barbados Union of Teachers has Lost its Way

The following is an unedited version of the article which appeared in the press last weekend.

As a practicing trade unionist, I find the stance taken by the Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT), with respect to its call to have a meeting with the Minister of Education, Ronald Jones, to be troubling and can only be summed up as “familiarity breeds contempt”.

President of BUT, Pedro Shepherd, publicly announced that his union would take industrial action if Minister Jones failed to meet with teachers on a particular date. Mr. Jones was a teacher and also a longstanding president of BUT. It would appear that his former union somehow believes that it should have no respect for the office of Minister of Education because the incumbent was one of them.

Mr. Jones has admitted that, as Minister, he has met with teachers in the past and in response to the union, he offered to meet after settling an agenda. That being the case, Mr. Jones has no one to blame but himself for the way teachers are now treating him.

As a former public-service trade union leader, Mr. Jones must know or ought to have known that, as a member of parliament, he has no right meeting with public officers to discuss any representations made by them, to deal with any matters related to their public office. That responsibility rest squarely on the shoulders of the Head of Department, who in this case is the Chief Education Officer (CEO).

Again the matter of familiarity breeding contempt has raised its ugly head. The current CEO, Karen Best, happens to be the immediate past president of the BUT. Any representations made by teachers or their representatives, including complaints against the Minister, should first be directed to her. Instead, teachers had been mixing business with friendship and have been bypassing all avenues open to them and improperly referring their concerns directly to the Minister.

Ministers, particularly the Education Minister, have routinely met with public officers even though such meetings are contrary to the “General Orders for the Public Service of Barbados 1970”. General Order 3.17 states:

Officers and employees who wish to make representations regarding promotion, transfer, increased emoluments or other matters related to their public office should do so through the Head of their Department or their accredited representatives and should not directly or indirectly approach a Member of Parliament. The Head of Department shall forward such representation to the appropriate authority within seven working days.

The General Orders that were previously unenforceable have been given the force of law by section 33.(2) of the Public Service Act 2007. The meeting that was proposed by BUT, where the Minister would sit down with teachers, would be highly improper as it would conflict with the General Orders. In essence, the union has ordered a strike to facilitate them breaking the rules.

The major problems in the Public Service have their genesis in politicians overreaching into areas that are outside of their responsibility, either by operation of the law or constitutional convention. Unfortunately, the lines separating politicians from civil servants have been blurred to the extent that unlawful political interference is now accepted as being the norm.

It is bad enough when BUT could mislead its membership to strike in order to force a Minister of the Crown to do the wrong thing. It is even worse when the general secretary of this country’s major union could flay Minister Donville Inniss for being completely in the right for a change.

There is no place in a modern Barbados for union leaders to call a strike at the mere drop of a hat because they know that they have it in their power to disrupt. The Public Service of Barbados would be a whole better place if those who seek to represent workers would first ground themselves in the relevant rules and procedures that directly impact on them, rather than relying on the art of bluster or mindless sabre-rattling.

Teachers by the very nature of their profession must be role models for their students. How can they explain their behaviour to their charges in this regard?