I agree with COP leader Prakash Ramadhar that the impasse between Watson Duke’s Public Services Association (PSA) and the Government brings us face to face with the question of law and order more than with questions relating to workers’ rights. We need to have vigilant union leaders who fight for their workers. But holding the country to ransom is another matter. No patriot, whatever his political leaning, wants to see the country spiral into instability. And when I heard the defiance and threats of Mr Duke, I wondered whether we were in for it again. Then above the din Minister McLeod emerged, saying that the industrial relations rules are clear and Mr Duke should know better.
The first thing that struck me about Mr McLeod’s approach was that it was measured and sober, without any hint of shrillness. No pique or robber talk. Having to deal with Mr Duke as a representative of the establishment is awkward. Mr McLeod was once a trade unionist himself. He must have some empathy for Mr Duke, a fellow traveller. And indeed his approach to Mr Duke has been conciliatory. But he is the Minister of Labour now. He has to see the big picture. People are taking a day off from work to try to get passports; they will see through technical fig leafs such as an OSH report.
What draws me to Mr McLeod’s coolness are some ministers who at every turn resort to big talk, threats, sarcasm or laying blame, and who I think turn people off just by that. I find the Attorney General to be intimidating. Yet another pre-action protocol letter is on the way. I heard Minister Gary Griffith the other night checking off an array of land and sea security systems that he was putting in place that were so sophisticated, he said, that PNM detractors would have difficulty just repeating the complexities he had just uttered. I saw no need for that. I heard Anil Roberts dismiss critics of his LifeSport programme by blaming Dr Rowley, and saying the critics are PNM people.
Mr McLeod replaced grand-standing with sobriety. He has been in Mr Duke’s shoes in his time, so he understands the problem from both sides. Mr Duke is not a choir boy, but Mr McLeod has remained sympathetic. His approach has been to stand aside and let the courts say who has the right reading of the events.
First he sought and got an injunction from the court which ordered the PSA, its president and members to refrain from taking industrial action and to go back to work. In defiance, Mr Duke made plain that he and his union were not going to comply, and indeed they defied the order.
One week into this defiance, Mr McLeod called a meeting saying that his patience was not boundless. Bringing an insider’s knowledge to bear, he reiterated what he believed a trade union can and cannot do under the law. Mr McLeod then triggered contempt proceedings, aimed at committing Mr Duke and one of his lieutenants to jail for violation of the court order. This brought the parties to court.
In the court we had a very useful exchange between titan lawyers Russell Martineau and Douglas Mendes. The Government had to agree with Mr Mendes that buildings are unsafe, and probably firetraps. Mr Martineau argued persuasively that if a court order is not followed, that court would become a pappyshow, with implications for the rule of law. Mr Duke and his representatives were in clear violation of the injunction. This exchange was useful for the country.
Mr McLeod admitted that there were safety issues in the Immigration building, but he also noted that this was being wrongly conflated with the plea for better wages and salaries and improved working conditions. He understood the tactic. He cautioned that union negotiations must seek to connect employment negotiations to “value and sustainability” rather than to keeping score as to who won or who lost.
I find that Mr McLeod has acted in an exemplary manner in his dealings with the PSA. He depersonalised the standoff with the union by not falling into the trap of name-calling. His approach was measured and calm. His disposition was that Mr Duke is in the wrong and it was up to the court to call him to board.
Mr Duke himself seems to have learned as the proceedings unfolded. Facing possible jail time, his statement last week, framed by legal advice not to utter incriminating speech, was conciliatory. He said that both sides needed to be heard in the matter.
There are lessons in Mr McLeod’s actions from which some of his colleagues can learn. Calmness and competence will always beat arrogance and robber talk.