Terry Lister today. *Photo by Amanda Dale
Terry Lister today. *Photo by Amanda Dale
FRIDAY, FEB. 11: The Transport Minister has spoken out about the bus strike, saying Government had to compromise for the greater good of the country.

Terry Lister admitted the public might see the agreement with the Bermuda Industrial Union (BIU) as caving in to union demands.

But he said Government wanted to avoid a general strike at a time of economic challenges.

And he added that the compromise would not set a precedent for future industrial action.

Asked whether he felt it was a case of one man holding the entire country to ransom, Mr. Lister said: “I agree with that 100 per cent, and because of that we’ve ended up sitting down and reaching an agreement.

“We were not prepared — given our economic state today — to put the country at risk over one man’s bad behaviour.

“Has he been adequately and appropriately punished? I don’t think so at all.

“But what we’ve done is to end the spectacle. We’ve compromised at five weeks’ suspension with no pay and a year’s probation which says, ‘You’ve got to pull your socks up’. The letter stays on file that this behaviour is not acceptable in the future.”

But the Minister expressed his dissatisfaction over the outcome, saying: “I’m as concerned today as I was yesterday, because I’m not sure we should find ourselves in positions where we are trying to choose between the immediate incident and the national good. But this is where the matter got to last night.”

And he said comments in the media had shown the public is also unhappy about the strike. Mr. Lister acknowledged that people would see Government as caving in over the issue.

“I believe the public will feel that way when they look at this incident. I certainly would see it that way. But we hope the public will appreciate we can’t afford to muck about at this time.

“The public saw the situation for what it was — the comments (in the media) are clear on that.

“But our view was, ‘let’s get this situation behind us so we can get on with things’. We’ve got a tough year ahead of us and we need all hands on deck.

“I’m really disappointed this didn’t quietly go to a tribunal. That would have been a commitment on behalf of the union, to work on behalf of Bermuda.”

He added: “This (situation) is not precedent-setting, it’s simply disappointing, to happen at a time when we all need to be on the same side (due to the economy).”

Admitting the situation could have escalated, he said: “It’s not in anyone’s interest to have Marine and Ports out today, the dock workers out on Monday and then the airport on Tuesday. You get one more group joining in a sympathy movement and then there’s a big meeting with the BPSU (Bermuda Public Services Union) to see if they want to join.

“That’s not where the country needs to be at this time.”

Mr. Lister said the BIU had failed to give 21 days notice before striking. It then continued industrial action after Labour Minister Kim Wilson issued the Gazette Extraordinary yesterday, saying the matter was to go to arbitration.

“The notice given in this case was considerably less,” he said. “Talks broke down (over the fired driver) sometime after 3pm and the last buses left the depots at 5 to 5:30pm, if that late.”

He confirmed striking drivers will not be paid from 6pm Wednesday to 6pm Thursday.

Mr. Lister also addressed criticism by Bermuda Industrial Union president Chris Furbert about a lack of communication with the union.

The BIU president had told a press conference yesterday: “As a social partner (to the BIU) he needs to develop a much better dialogue with us.”

Mr. Lister said after Ms Wilson issued the notice yesterday, the matter was then between the union and the Labour Minister.

He said he spoke to Mr. Furbert on Wednesday evening and Thursday evening, but that the union president was technically correct in saying they “had not spoken for 24 hours”.

Mr. Lister also said the Department of Public Transportation had followed the correct disciplinary procedure regarding the fired driver.

“Management brought him to the Department with his union representatives. At no point in the last two or three days did the union say his case was mishandled.

“The disciplinary process was followed correctly.

“You never heard Mr. (Chris) Furbert say due process was not followed, which means our management did a very good job of following the Collective Bargaining Agreement and due process.”

Mr. Lister said in 2009 the driver was previously suspended on a similar matter.

“Whilst on sick leave again, he was seen by a supervisor on her day off, serving alcohol behind a bar.

“That earned him a dismissal but the union spoke on his behalf and he was given a two-week suspension.

“You have to be concerned when the matter comes up again in 2011,” said the Minister.

“He was on a valid sick leave for which he has a doctor’s certificate but he chose to assist those people responsible for fuelling the buses and opening up the depot in Sandys (Dockyard).

“For three mornings he went up and opened up the depot and gassed up the buses.”

Commenting on the driver’s colleagues’ claims that he felt “obligated” to fill in for absent co-workers in his part-time job, in order to keep the buses running, Mr. Lister disagreed.

“When you have a sickness certificate, you are being paid to be at home, so you should be at home resting up,” he said.

“That is your obligation — to be home in bed.”

The Minister said the man had also signed a fraudulent signature on the bus refueling paperwork.

“When he signed, he signed another name so that called into question why that was so. Why sign someone else’s name if you’re doing the work?”

Mr. Lister said the PTB contractor was “not at fault”.

“How would they even know this fellow was off sick?,” he said.

A criminal prosecution for fraud was also unlikely.

“There’s nothing we need to act on as what we wanted from the firm was how much gas was going into the buses, and an audit shows the numbers are fine.”

Commenting on drivers’ complaints about “inconsistency” in management in disciplinary action and concerns over health and safety, Mr. Lister said: “I’m not aware of different treatments in my discussions with the PTB, both prior to this incident and during this incident. This has never been raised.

“What was said was there are some issues that exist at PTB that have to be dealt with, but there are issues everywhere. No one works or lives in a perfect environment.

“Where there are issues, I feel individuals will make commitments to resolve them.”

Mr. Lister concluded: “I hope from this process, when the union has time to sit back and think about it, that they will appreciate that the greater good will be adhered to.”

On the union’s actions, he said: “It’s just sad. It’s not a mature and responsible way to deal with the country.”

Asked if he felt the BIU had too much power, he said: “Let me not answer that. We’re trying to go forward.”