Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Time for a new paradigm

Monday’s Labour Day celebration offered us an opportunity to reflect on the essential role played by working people in both building and sustaining our country. While foreign investors and savvy entrepreneurs inject capital, establish companies and create opportunities, none of this is possible without the work of labourers, sales assistants, secretaries and couriers. It is this duality of efforts that keeps the economic engine running. These efforts, though, have always been framed by confrontation and mistrust. With our engine running sluggishly and fundamental changes on a global scale this may well be the time to move toward an enhanced labour—management paradigm.

Any new paradigm should include, minimally, the following characteristics: (1) the interests of the country should transcend any more narrowly defined interest; (2) deliberations should be rooted in transparency and full disclosure; and (3) a sense of social responsibility should envelop decision-making.

The right of workers and business owners/managers to pursue their interests is inalienable but not absolute. I think reasonable people will agree that keeping buses running for our tourists and students is more important than a labour/management dispute over a bus driver; that the protection of our national image and profile abroad is a better guarantor of our long term sustainability than bad managers fomenting labour unrest in their pursuit of a narrow economic agenda. We will make progress when the specific pursuits of workers and business owners/managers are placed in the broader national context. It may well mean that some issues are dropped because there is a larger area of concern more pressing, which if not addressed will weaken our country in ways which will take a long time to recover from.

There is often a cat ‘n’ mouse game played between management and labour as they seek to win some concession, akin to a game of high stakes poker: some information is revealed, some concealed, much left to speculation and interpretation. I believe if both parties shared more information and provided a clear rationale for the positions taken better decisions could be arrived at, faster.  Aiming high and settling somewhere below what was first sought months later is an old approach ill-suited to the exigencies of Bermuda today. Deliberations based on all available information with advocates also looking at the national interest are more likely to come to agreement more quickly than deliberations shrouded in secrecy and the incremental release of data.

One of the ironies of today is that while trade union radicalism has abated as progress has been won we have seen, worldwide, and unrelenting pursuit of profit maximization and greater shareholder value at almost any cost. Some people will simply call this greed. This provided the backdrop for the financial crisis, pushing some countries to the brink of collapse and, because business has been successful in arguing “what’s good for them is good for the country” governments have stepped in to back them. We did that here as well. When juxtaposed with the concessions unions have made to retain jobs the call for greater corporate social responsibility makes sense. Progressive companies view their employees as partners and involve them in key decisions and provide a level of profit sharing as well. A radical shift in thinking for Bermuda but perhaps one we need to consider seriously.

 It is often said that Bermuda is small enough with all key decision makers within close proximity of each other that we should be able to sit down and work out all of our challenges. Aside from the political divide—which is more imagined than real—we have the opportunity to move toward a more collaborative, socially responsible relationship between labour and management. Such a move would benefit the countryl. All that seems to be lacking is the courage and vision for one party to take the first step.

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