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"You Don't Treat People Like Animals, Especially When You Come Into a Foreign Country"

CEWU president fears that Emera will kill the union in Grand Bahama by November 2012

by Miles Howe

Leslie Lightbourne, president of CEWU, fears Emera will kill his union by the end of 2012. [Photo: Miles Howe]
Leslie Lightbourne, president of CEWU, fears Emera will kill his union by the end of 2012. [Photo: Miles Howe]

FREEPORT, GRAND BAHAMA – The Commonwealth Electrical Workers Union (CEWU), representing an ever-dwindling membership at Emera's Grand Bahama Power Company (GBPC), is in the process of being systematically busted by Emera, the Nova Scotia-based company, says the union. The GBPC is the monopoly power provider to approximately 20,000 customers on the island of Grand Bahama.

The weak underbelly of the CEWU's situation is that it does not currently have a registered contract with the GBPC, nor did it have a registered contract at the time that Emera purchased the GBPC. Emera gained majority ownership in GBPC in 2010.

Leslie Lightbourne, CEWU president for the line workers, notes that the oversight was never pressed by the former owners of the GBPC, and that the contract between the CEWU and the GBPC existed in a mutually beneficial, albeit non-registered, state for years prior to Emera's grand entrance. Indeed, former Minister of Labour Dion Foulkes, from the recently ousted Free National Movement (FNM) party, suggested to the CEWU in 2012 that registry or non-registry was a non-issue in the Bahamas, where a high percentage of contracts go unregistered.

Now, without a registered contract, Emera is picking off CEWU membership with near-surgical precision, Lightbourne says. Unprotected by their former Collective Labour Agreement, Lightbourne reports that individuals, some with three or four decades of service with GBPC, are being terminated for reasons that would have, under the contract, have merited only a warning. Employees are also being subjected to extensive suspensions, some as long as 30 days.

“We had an employee terminated with 40 years service,” says Lightbourne. “Past [union] president, former shop steward, clean record. And he was terminated and was not given one dime for his years of service. Now when he walked on the job for the first day, the CEO [Nova Scotian Sarah MacDonald] was three years old. So to come 40 years later and do that to a person?”

The “senseless terminations and inhumane treatment towards employees,” appear, however, to be only Emera's opening volleys against what currently remains of the CEWU.

Emera's first body blow to the union comes with what should, perhaps, be cause for celebration: the completion of a new 52-megawatt, diesel-fired, power station. The $80 million West Sunrise power plant is touted as the future of power generation on the island of Grand Bahama.

But through a legal sleight of hand, West Sunrise falls into a grey area where it is not currently a GBPC station. Instead, for the moment it is part of Emera Utility Services, an in-house, non-unionized contractor. Emera Utility Services, in seeking to fill positions at West Sunrise, has been pillaging CEWU membership.

“When Emera came they solicited employees to resign and work with Emera Utility Services,” says Lightbourne. “The CEO, Sarah MacDonald, [said] her reason for contracting out the power plant was for insufficient training and skills to run the new power plant ... But what baffled us was that she took the same employees from Grand Bahama Power Company, trained them for about five or six months ... convinced them to resign, and now they are contractors working for Emera Utility Services.”

The CEWU continues to hang on at GBPC in a maintenance and mechanical capacity. Lightbourne fears, however, that a union-wide, Emera-mandated training session in November will spell the end of the CEWU in Grand Bahama.

Any attempts at a mass layoff, while the CEWU is still on the job, and Emera would have to deal with potential strike actions, which could include disruptions to service. But a flurry of pink slips would go virtually unchallenged if the remaining CEWU members were all tucked away neatly in classrooms.

“Everybody will be in school in November, including mechanics and operations,” says Lightbourne. “If that entire plant is shut down while we're in school, that might be [Emera's] time when they decide to make a move.”

Between now and November, Lightbourne will be trying frantically to get the CEWU's contract registered. He holds the former FNM government accountable for his union's current situation, and is currently trying to court the ear of the as-yet unresponsive Progressive Liberal Party, which swept into majority across the Bahamian archipelago in May 2012, to intervene in the situation on Grand Bahama.

“We hold the government responsible,” says Lightbourne. “When a government seeks to bring in foreign investors, their number one priority is to bring stability, jobs and growth ... but in the same instance [the government needs to] find out the whole picture of the people coming in. Now I'm sure [Emera] would have had to lay out a new plan, which is to say 'We're going to contract out a new power plant. We'll get the people that work there now to resign and work for [us].' From a moral standpoint? It's the worst company to hit these shores. You don't treat people like animals. Especially when you come into a foreign country.”

This is the first in a series of articles that will explore the various impacts that Emera, the Nova Scotia-based company, is having upon residents of the island of Grand Bahama. Complaints against Emera from residents in the Grand Bahama have been extensive.

Stay tuned over the coming days for further installments investigating the social, economic and political impacts that Emera's monopoly ownership of the Grand Bahama Power Company has had on the island.

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Topics: Labour
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