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Dockers call a truce during legal case

By Matthew Taylor, The GazetteNET News, Friday 17 March 2000

The dockers went back to work last night after downing tools during the day for their court bid to overturn an injunction over their overtime ban.

It's thought they will work early this morning before heading back to Supreme Court for the hearing which the BIU say has massive ramifications for every worker in Bermuda. The BIU want to establish that overtime is not compulsory after Stevedoring Services slapped them with an injunction after February's overtime ban.

The union's lawyer Delroy Duncan said that forced overtime would break the Bermudian constitution as well as International Labour Organisation regulations.

Mr. Duncan said: "This is a significant issue for workers in Bermuda, particularly workers on the dock."

A private hearing had originally been planned but Mr. Duncan argued that because the port workers were named in the injunction then they had a right to attend the hearing because if the injunction was upheld then they could be jailed.

Mr. Duncan said the workers would be willing to work evenings and at weekends to serve the national interest - BIU leader Derrick Burgess said last night that work is expected to continue as normal over the weekend.

Stevedoring Services' lawyer Alan Dunch said: "The union's position seems to be that no worker should be forced to work overtime and that it is a voluntary act. "But as we see it the issue is whether the imposition of a general overtime ban amounts to industrial action short of a strike. If it does then under two pieces of legislation it is unlawful and so can be subject to injunctive relief."

He said the BIU had launched five overtime bans since September 1998 as well as two strikes, a sick out and a stoppage. He pointed to overtime bans being launched without any attempt to get arbitration or set up a tribunal and that the union had actually launched one action in support of a sacked manager who had threatened a worker with a knife.

However the union's Chris Furbert said the individual had suffered massive provocation, had been a member of the union and that the management had failed to take proper action against another dock employee who had hung two nooses in lockers.

The company argued that overtime bans were launched to put pressure on the management but Mr. Furbert hit back by saying that in one dispute the union had tried for five months to make headway before resorting to action.

And Mr. Duncan said industrial action short of strike was such a vague concept that it had been scrapped in the UK. Mr. Dunch asked Mr. Furbert if he agreed that if his workers decided not to work overtime anymore then presumably the union would have no difficulty with the fact that management could bring in other labour to do it. Mr. Furbert said: "If the port authority decides to give work to someone else that is a decision for someone else." Mr. Furbert, who has responsibility for the Hamilton Dockers, admitted that the docks were a 24-hour operation where overtime was an essential part of the operation.

However Mr. Furbert said most 24-hour operations had three shifts covering them while the dockers tended to work 8 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. and that notice had to be given about overtime.

Mr. Furbert said that overtime work made up around 25 percent of earnings for about half the workers on the docks.

He admitted that part of the collective agreement involved working overtime "from time to time".

Mr. Furbert said the union could opt out of agreed overtime for a designated period if they gave the agreed notice.

However Mr. Furbert's letter about February's overtime ban had been for an indefinite period and an earlier overtime ban hadn't given the required notice - a tit for tat action according to Mr. Furbert after the bosses had flouted the law.

He was asked why he had dodged a question about this year's ban from The Royal Gazette by claiming he knew nothing about it when he had already written to Stevedoring Services giving notice about it days earlier.

Mr. Dunch said: "That wasn't true, was it. You knew full well there was an action."

Mr. Furbert said the overtime ban in September 1998 had been sparked when the bosses attempted to erode agreed payments for overtime work and that the management seemed to be unaware of the agreement.