Bus Strike

I am thoroughly bogged down with dissertation research, final papers, and packing to relocate home, so I really have no business blogging, but the current bus strike in Bermuda has captured my attention to no end. I cannot possibly miss the chance to weigh in on this one.

When I listened to and then read the statement issued by Minister of Transport Terry Lister, it certainly seemed correct that the bus driver at the centre of the dispute should be sacked. Last night, I listened to the statements made by head of the Bermuda Industrial Union (BIU), Chris Furbert, and there were a few things he said that were of interest.

The first point that Mr. Furbert seems to be making is that there is a difference between what is required of an employee in terms of pre-employment drug testing and drug testing during employment, as detailed in the employment contract. It sounds as though (according to Mr. Furbert’s comments) the Department of Public Transport (DPT) and, by extension, the Ministry of Transport, have used the pre-employment process for drug testing as a basis for assessment and conclusion of the situation, when a different process has been contractually agreed for circumstances arising during employment. However, I am guessing the Ministry will argue that what they have ultimately fired the employee for is gross insubordination – refusal to take the drug test on five separate occasions, as stated by Minister Lister at his press conference. Unfortunately, this leads one right back to whether she should have to take a drug test or not; and if the employee has refused, based on her employment contract saying she does not have to take one, then it seems she would be correct (contractually, at least) to seek representation and refuse.

The waters are further muddied by the whole urine or hair follicle test debate and one or two other allegations made by Mr. Furbert at yesterday’s press conference: Namely, that there are no police report and photos concerning the accident; the bus never moved; and that the employee was told (presumably by management) that her shop steward said she could take the drug test (which, according to Mr. Furbert, was untrue, and, therefore, deception is implied).

I do not know what the employment contract or the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) says on any of this, but the current impasse and the questions that arise as a result of statements at both press conferences mean that arbitration will very likely be necessary for resolution.

In general, I believe that if there was an accident and a passenger was injured, a full investigation is in order and a drug test should be standard. The drug test should be immediate and it should be a hair follicle test. (Bus drivers should be subject to random drug testing, regardless, but that’s a story for another day.) I also believe that the employee’s refusal to comply should also result in termination of her employment. Unfortunately, however, it is not as cut and dried as this because of the contractual agreements between employers – in this case, the DPT – and the BIU.

I have always believed that unions play an important role in society in ensuring fairness and protection for employees. When we look back at the enormous contributions they have made in making the work place a fairer and just place for so many who did not have rights or a voice, we are reminded of the debt we owe them. Today, the unions continue to rightly assist workers who are treated unfairly and this is crucial. However, I also believe that it is time for unions – and, particularly the BIU – to modernise with the help of a much higher calibre of leadership that introduces a more professional style of management when addressing labour issues and overall operations.

I would like to see the BIU continue to work in earnest for the rights of workers, but I would also like to see them encourage greater accountability among their membership when they fall short in the workplace. It is ultimately the role of the employer to ensure accountability on the job, but the BIU can greatly assist by engendering a spirit and culture within its membership that is devoted to high standards in the workplace in terms of performance and attitudes on the job. I think there are many creative ways in which the union can do this and I would be very interested in seeing them embrace such an approach. There is no doubt that there are many union employees who are outstanding workers and who have fantastic attitudes, but far too many are not and they hide behind the Union and the CBA. Of course, few would get away with it if managers/employers handled situations correctly in the first place and followed agreed procedures.

Oh, yes, the procedures…It is time to have a look at them.

Is it really necessary to have so many convoluted procedures and processes? Surely, they can be scaled down to allow employers and managers to have greater flexibility in using their judgement to address situations without having to feel they need a course on the CBA. There are some things which are common sense and if unfair treatment results then the union can step in and other mechanisms can be used to resolve differences. As it stands now, it is often the processes which, although important in some instances, are too frequently manipulated for the benefit of rogue employees or general poor behaviour. This leads to staff thinking they can get away with whatever they choose if they run to the union; and managers sometimes being hesistant to address issues because they don’t want to deal with the headache of a labour dispute. The bottom line is that we end up with mediocrity in the workplace.

It is time for a change.

Although, arbitration appears to be the right avenue for resolving this dispute and doing it quickly, I do have to admit to thinking that if the Bermuda Government decided not to budge, then this could be a necessary watershed moment. Goodness knows that the PLP stand to lose a fair bit of politcal capital if it all backfires on them. If they thought the public was against them before all of this, I shudder to think of the potentially overwhelming discontent that they will be faced with should their current stance prove unsuccesful. However, standing firm might help to signal a change in the way things are done when dealing with the union. Who knows?

In terms of the current issue, there are a few other things that come to mind that I must rattle off before I disappear into a mound of work again:

  • It would be interesting to hear from the injured bus passenger. I am surprised that no reporter has sought to get in touch with him or her, to get their version of what happened and to hear their take on the situation. Most importantly, it would be good to know that they are okay and recovering well from the injury. Very odd that no one has mentioned this.
  • After reading so many comments online, I would like to encourage residents not to villify the bus driver, Jennifer Harvey, who is at the centre of this dispute. I have no idea who Ms. Harvey is and if things transpired as Minister Lister described, then I do think she should be sacked; but, obviously, there are two sides to the story which are coming into sharper focus. Whether we agree with her or not, all of the name calling and unkindness is really lowering the tone. We can disagree and be displeased with someone or a situation without resorting to nastiness. (While I expect she cannot speak publicly, if it is possible, it would be interesting to see if the media are able to interview Ms. Harvey to hear her views on what is going on and for her to share her side of the story.)
  • Comments made by Chris Furbert which alluded to how bus drivers who choose to return to work in spite of the strike would or could be negatively treated were incredibly unprofessional and unseemly. He might view it as just telling it like it is, but this is precisely the kind of thing that I am referring to when I say that the BIU needs better or more professional leadership. His tone and comments come off as bullying and are not in keeping with the kind of example that should be set for the BIU membership or the community at large.
  • The media are to be congratulated for staying on top of the story as it continues to develop. Like many other Bermudians living abroad, I rely on the various media outlets to keep me up to date on the happenings in Bermuda, so it has been a great help. I especially appreciated the audio clip posted by Bernews of the full press conference held by Chris Furbert. It allowed me to dissect a few things directly, without reading secondary reports, which is how we usually get news. In doing so, I am reminded that we don’t have all of the information and we must be careful not to rush to judgement. The story on this dispute will continue to unfold and we will need to temper our comments with this in mind, at times.
  • And, finally….the best for last…..I am so proud of the residents of Bermuda for coming together and helping each other out with transportation amid the bus strike. Whoever started the Facebook page “Help give a ride to work Bermuda”, I tip my proverbial hat to you. I’ve been wishing I could be in Bermuda now to participate and witness it all directly, but I am cheering everyone on in light of the challenging circumstances. It is this kindness and togetherness that is the real essence of being a Bermudian. Keep at it!

***UPDATE:  I’ve just come across the following article in the Bermuda Sun titled: “Leaked Report Lifts Lid on Bus Dispute” which raises an eyebrow.

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~ by Carol-Ann Simmons on August 19, 2011.

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