The following interview with Lincoln Lewis, General Secretary of the Caribbean Congress of Labour (CCL) was first published in the Guyana Review of December 10, 2008.
From the standpoint of the Caribbean Congress of Labour (CCL) what are the most important challenges confronting the regional labour movement today?
LL: Several things preoccupy us at this time. There is the challenge of creating a regional labour movement that is up to the challenges facing workers. It may surprise you to know that many of the problems facing labour are common across the region. There are organizational weaknesses, leadership deficiencies and in some cases, a lack of capacity to properly interpret and respond to the social, economic and political issues that challenge the region and, by extension, the workers of the region.
Our agenda has now gone far beyond the basic issues of the right to work and the conditions under which we work. There are new issues – issues like the environment, decent work, the changing nature of employer/employee relations, HIV/AIDS and, more recently, issues like the advent of the Caricom Single Market, the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and the global economic crisis and its implications for the region. These issues comprise what I would describe as the new agenda.
What do you see as the critical implications of the Single Market for the regional labour movement?
LL: Simply put, we believe that the uninhibited movement of labour and capital from one country to another in the region is bound to have implications for the regional labour movement as a whole. What is particularly obvious is that the Single Market creates similar kinds of challenges for employer/employee relations in all of the countries of the region that have signed on to the CSM.
We need to be concerned, for example, with the impact of the Single Market on the shift of jobs from one country to another and from one industry to another. We also need to be concerned about the impact of the movement of businesses from one country to another and the way in which that movement affects the survival of industries in the affected countries. What this means is that the various trade unions in the Caribbean must work more closely, among themselves as well as with employers and governments to develop common responses to those problems.
Can you give us a personal perspective as to how that challenge has to be met?
LL: I believe that labour has to begin to think outside of the box – so to speak. In the first instance we need to strengthen our capacity to make a meaningful contribution to the region-wide response to the challenges facing the Caribbean. Capacity-building is one of the preoccupations of the CCL at this time. What we are seeking to do is to strengthen the capacity of the various unions in the region to pursue their own internal agendas and to engage the other stakeholders on those issues that comprise what I have described as the new agenda. Additionally, I am personally quite excited about the idea of building bridges among regional trade unions in specific areas. For example, I had a discussion with a group of colleagues recently about the idea of creating single federations of unions with similar interests across the region so that we would have a Federation of Teachers’ Unions, for example; or a federation of unions in the energy sector or in the mining sector.
The idea behind this is to realize a pooling of intellectual and other resources and a coordination of policies. If this can be achieved it would obviously mean that the various categories of workers in the region would have greater collective clout in the region as a whole. I should say that this is very much an initial idea and that a great deal more work would have to be done to determine how, if at all, it can be actualized and what mechanisms we would need to put in place given the fact that we are talking about transnational structures. Interestingly, the idea of transnational mergers of unions is not entirely dissimilar to the tendency towards international mergers within the trade union fraternity.
What about the role of labour in responding to the current economic crisis in the region?
LL: The creeping economic crisis that is beginning to affect the region is at the top of the CCL’s agenda. The writing is already on the wall in terms of job losses in the tourism sector, particularly. I gave an interview to the Stabroek News recently in which I said that Caribbean governments were partly to blame for the situation.
There were things that we ought to have done three decades ago to try to protect our economies against just such an eventuality by reducing our dependence on markets in first world countries and stepping up our food security. Although none of the politicians in the region have had the presence of mind to say it, the fact is that we failed to do those things. Regional leaders in their assessment of the crisis talk about the meltdown in the financial institutions in the United States and the global economic crisis. Those are not the only reasons for the crisis.
The problem is that Caribbean Heads of Government do not want to be seen to have to take any of the responsibility for the crisis. Our societies are still not open to placing the blame where it belongs, particularly when it comes to our politicians. I believe, however, that the challenge lies in finding solutions here in the region. Obviously, food security is a critical issue, not only from the standpoint of feeding ourselves but also in terms of job-creation in the agricultural sector; not just salaried jobs but also in terms of more people being self-employed. I believe, however, that the process has to start with a common understanding among the stakeholders – governments, labour, the private sector and others – regarding the way forward. The challenge here lies in the fact that some governments are less committed to the idea of a stakeholder partnership than others. That has to change if we are to find a way out of this crisis. Governments cannot think that they can do this alone when there are other stakeholder interests at stake.
Is labour equipped to play its role as a partner in this process?
LL: Frankly, I am not sure. The situation varies from one country to another. In Guyana, for example, labour is weak and divided and the highly touted stakeholder arrangement of a few years ago has collapsed completely.
The government pays no attention to the Guyana Trades Union Congress. In fact, one of the things that I find particularly distressing is the misleading cliché about consulting with labour, that is used here in Guyana. Pretensions to consultations with the labour movement on the part of the government of Guyana are a farce. What we seeing is a relationship with a handful of unions that do not represent even a quarter of the workers of this country.
That is a terrible misrepresentation of the reality of relations between government and labour in Guyana. On the other hand it has to be said that in some respects the leadership of the trade union movement in Guyana has, in many respects, failed its constituency and must therefore take some measure of responsibility for the crisis…
The trade union movement also suffers from a scarcity of leadership skills, and what appears to be an inability to properly interpret the changing climate and understand the changing agenda. In some cases, there is simply a preoccupation with power by leaders who are self-centred and are not even capable of using their occupation of office to improve the lot of the workers that they purport to represent.
I believe that what is at stake compels the labour movement to recognize the need for change. We need a new generation of trade union leaders who need to be more sensitive to workers’ issues, more aware of the current agenda and, I daresay, more focussed on carrying through with that agenda.
Are you suggesting the current crop of labour leaders have outlived their usefulness?
LL: What I am saying is that the decline in the membership of the labour movement … and the seeming loss of faith in organized labour may well speak to the need for comprehensive change with the labour movement and that that change may, in some instances, include a change in leadership. We need to be frank about this. The contemporary workers’ agenda of 2008 is a far more complex agenda than that of thirty years ago. It is not just a question of putting together a Collective Labout Agreement. What I am saying, therefore, is that leadership in the context of contemporary labour is much more challenging. If some of the current leaders are to be honest they will admit that their skills are far too limited to cope with the demands of the current agenda.
The problem here, of course, is that leadership of trade unions is not as appealing a vocation as it was in the past. In addition to this many of the younger generation of workers across the region have complained that their efforts to rise to leadership positions have been stymied by the current crop of leaders. In sum I wish to say – and we must make no mistake about this – that if the movement is to effectively serve its purpose then we can no longer afford to sweep our own deficiencies under the carpet and simply point to deficiencies elsewhere.
Deficient leadership is one of the problems facing the movement and we cannot wish that away. What I may add – and we need to take cognizance of this is that informed thinkers in the Caribbean are also raising questions about the quality of leadership being provided by political leaders in the region in terms of their capacity to adopt and implement policies that respond to the aspirations of the people of the region. I was in Antigua a few months ago for the opening of the Conference of Heads of CARICOM.
That forum was addressed by the Barbadian novelist George Lamming who told the assembled group of Heads that it was quite likely that people in the region were not paying the slightest attention to the fact that their political leaders were meeting in Antigua at that time.
I believe that what Lamming was saying in effect was that Caribbean Heads may well be rendering themselves irrelevant to the concerns of the people they are elected to govern since, in some cases, their promises of development were taking the region nowhere. I still recall the hush that fell over the gathering when Lamming made that pronouncement. It seemed to me that amidst the fanfare associated with the opening ceremony for the Conference of Caribbean Heads Lamming had touched on a reality which the assembled Heads and other officials found discomfiting.
Is the challenge of leadership deficiencies in the labour movement not another challenge for the CCL?
LL: It is, in the first instance, a challenge for the individual trade unions in the region. It is the workers themselves who must agitate for change. It is they who must demand accountability; it is they who must ensure that their unions adhere to democratic practices. There is a role here for the CCL. We can support training initiatives by working through the respective umbrella labour organizations. Where new leaders are identified we can help prepare them for leadership. But in the final analysis it is the workers themselves who must agitate for change.
Sometimes we tend to forget that unions are the property of the workers. I believe that there are two reasons for that loss of memory. The first reason, in my opinion, has to do with the indifference of the workers themselves. That indifference, in a sense, leads to the second reason and that is, the hijacking of unions in some cases by leaders who are not really concerned with the objectives of labour and are merely taking advantage of the lack of vigilance on the part of the workers. The experience of the past tells me that if the labour movement is to grow and to serve its purpose workers need to be more vigilant about holding their leaders to account and about ensuring that the structures of their unions are democratic, transparent and that they allow for worker control.
How has the current agenda affected the relationship between employer and employee?
LL: That is an interesting question. On the one hand the essence of the employer/employee relationship has really not changed at all. What has happened, however, is that a number of new issues have come on the agenda and these issues have definitely impacted on the way in which they relate to each other. I will give you two examples. The first is the environment. Before issues of the environment assumed prominence on the global agenda, issues of health and safety were, in the main, matters that were confined to the Collective Labour Agreement. Today the environment embraces, among other things, issues of health and safety. What this means is that health and safety is no longer strictly an employer/employee matter.
Those aspects of health and safety that have a bearing on the environment are, in many instances, matters of national and global concern, What this means is that both employer and employee have identical goals. Good health and safety practices are not just a matter of adhering to the conditions set out in the Collective Labour Agreement. It is, in many instances, a matter of complying with national laws.
The second example is HIV/AIDS. As you are aware the International Labour Organization (ILO) is playing a prominent role in addressing HIV/AIDS as a workplace problem. What we have seen in recent years is a tremendous increase in the level of employer/employee collaboration in terms of establishing HIV/AIDS Workplace Committees and taking other initiatives to respond to the problem. I believe that these are two excellent examples of a convergence of employer/employee interests that have helped to strengthen relations between trade unions and workplaces.
Is the CCL comfortable with its relations with the regional private sector.?
LL: Words like ‘comfortable’ cannot be applied in situations that are fluid. What I would say is that the CCL has engaged some of large business houses in the region and organizations like the Caribbean Association of Industry of Commerce (CAIC)and we have found what in some instances has been a refreshingly enlightened view on industrial relations among private sector representatives.
I think that what we are finding in many instances is that there is a convergence of interests between the trade union movement and employers and I have explained some of the reasons for that convergence of interests.
The private sector community is an enlightened and pragmatic community and when you engage some private sector businessmen you very quickly discover that. Certainly, I would say that it is very much in the interest of regional labour relations that we continue to build bridges with the private sector that are based on mutual respect and a mutual regard for each other’s interests.
Do you believe that the current agenda requires a shift in labour’s approach to addressing the problems of workers’ in the region?
LL: Labour is not only about addressing problems. It is also about contributing to solutions; solutions for the countries of the region, the region as a whole and the workers of the region. It is evident, for example, that labour has an interest in contributing to economic stability and progress in the region since those goals are consistent with the welfare of the workers who are represented by the various trade unions.
I believe that it is necessary that we embrace the institutions through which those goals are met and that we work with those institutions; and here I include governments, regional institutions like CARICOM, the private sector and the international trade union movement.
The approach requires different sets of skills and the training that we provide must include training in those skills. We often hear it said that the trade union movement is about struggle. Unfortunately, some people tend to place struggle in a physical context.
That is a misrepresentation of what labour is all about. Of course struggle is about tough negotiations and about industrial action when that becomes necessary, Struggle, however, is also the sum total of all that we do—whether on the picket line or in collaborative discourses with other institutions.
At the end of the day every effort that we make, in whatever way that we make that effort, is part of that struggle.