The Government of Belize through its Ministry of Labour has placed waterfront workers under the Essential Services Act. This means that they are not allowed to go on strike without giving formal notice 21 days in advance.
CWU stevedores called a surprise, unofficial strike ten days before Christmas. Port workers in Belize City and Big Creek refused to do any work, causing two ships with Christmas cargo to be diverted at the height of the shopping season.
In Big Creek loading of refrigerated citrus concentrate could not proceed, and the perishable cargo had to be brought back and put into storage.
There is no official estimate of how badly the industrial action has affected Belize’s commerce, but most agree that the two-day strike cost importers and exporters in the region of several hundred thousands dollars.
CWU defenders say that the strike was called to focus national attention on the plight of waterfront workers who have been agitating for a pension plan for a long time. Union workers charge that the Port of Belize Management reneged on an earlier commitment concerning pension benefits, demonstrating bad faith in its dealings with the union.
If the Christian Workers Union had followed standard work dispute procedures, it would have given a formal warning before taking strike action. This would have benefitted the workers’ cause in four ways:
It would have sensitized Belize City and the rest of the country to the plight of waterfront workers.
It would have brought a sense of urgency to the negotiations with the Belize Port Authority, requiring government intervention.
It would have demonstrated restraint and maturity on the part of the Union, in contrast to the recklesness that we have seen.
Finally it would have forestalled and avoided any civil claims for damages from the people who have been hurt by the strike. By taking disruptive, unannounced strike action at the peak of the Christmas season, the CWU turned public opinion against the union, and exposed it to possible civil lawsuits.
The Essential Services Act (1996) provides a rational way for trade unions to solve problems without tearing the economy apart. Under the ESA people working in petroleum supplies and distribution, in the national fire service, the postal service, monetary and financial services, airport service, port service, and social security services are not allowed to go on strike whenever they please. The law requires the union to first inform the Minister of Labour that a serious dispute exists, and then wait for 21 days before taking strike action.
The law is not anti-union. It is designed to foresee and if possible forestall the kind of industrial action which would hurt the economy or cause serious damage to commerce. It provides a cooling off period for wiser heads to prevail and reach consensus.
The Essential Services Act also offers protection to trade unions and their members. If there are no solutions forthcoming after 21 days, workers are authorized to go on strike, and their employer would not be allowed to retaliate against them by depriving them of their right to work by using lock-out tactics.