By NATALIE BRIGGS
If nothing else, the plight of the Chinese worker in Trinidad today stands as a cautionary tale to his local counterpart who, if it ever comes to that, will not have the option of demanding to be returned to more congenial conditions at home.
As the local worker becomes sandwiched between Faster and Cheaper, these two monoliths of neo-liberal economic policy, he finds that his hours and duties have lengthened with a simultaneous shortening of wages, permanence and benefits. This new worker is a creature of the Washington Consensus, a worldwide attempt to reduce the impact that labour agitation has on free market forces, the bitter pill governments and private enterprise of developing countries are left to swallow as they cut back expenditure to survive in a global system run by the market.
The results aren’t pretty. Increasingly it seems that local labour institutions and even the movement itself are under attack. Government is moving to place the Cipriani Labour College under the aegis of University of Trinidad and Tobago; PTSC and TSTT have gone to the Industrial Court in an attempt to de-certify the recognised bargaining bodies for workers, the Transport and Industrial Workers and Communication Workers Unions. National union membership hovers somewhere around 20 percent as employees no longer see the benefit of joining a trade union and are further discouraged from accessing them through employers’ subtle threats to their jobs. What is worse is that the current incarnation of the labour movement appears unable to stop the onslaught.
Indeed as I glanced around the Cipriani Labour College’s auditorium for the opening night of its 43rd anniversary celebrations, this opinion seems to be confirmed. The night’s panel played before a steadily diminishing audience of FITUN regulars, college staff and students. As they preached to this congregation of the converted, the panel, consisting of labour powerhouses, FITUN’s David Abdulah, the OWTU’s Ancel Roget, All Sugar and General’s Rudy Indarsingh and CWU president Joseph Remy summed up the problems plaguing the movement. The most serious of course were outside of the control of the trade unions – the behaviour of government, the employer/capitalist class and even the workers themselves.
Abdulah said that the movement had become a victim of its own success. The employee had forgotten the struggles and the movement that had brought real and measurable improvements to their condition over the past seventy years. To top it off, government and the private sector were bent on following neo-liberal economic models that have been proven to no longer work. Roget’s contribution dealt with employers’ inability to come to the bargaining table in good faith and labour laws that were stacked in favour of business owners. Remy regretted the insidious conversion of the only genuine worker centred place of learning to an institution where the eventual marketability of the degree is paramount. All of the leaders present tenaciously clung to the exercise of labour’s major trump card, the strike, as a matter of course and not necessarily a last resort.
So, what is the way forward for the labour movement? Can a way forward be forged given the movement’s history, development and its adherence to what has worked in the past?
To find some answers to these questions I visited the offices of one trade union veteran, one economist and one industrial relations consultant.
Contrary to views expressed by his colleagues, BIGWU’s Vincent Cabrera maintains that one of the leading problems facing the labour movement comes from within. He says discord continues to plague trade unions. The comment called to mind the boast by the OWTU’s Ancel Roget that his union is one of a few forming the vanguard against ‘reactionaries’ in the trade union movement. Recent months are littered with stories of in-fighting- FITUN and NATUC’s separate platforms at Labour Day celebrations this year, and the fallout between FITUN members and the PSA being two examples. Cabrera, who is also NATUC’s vice president, was confident however that his organization and its FITUN colleagues were moving closer to bridging the divide. He says “more and more unions on both sides of the fence are seeing the absolute necessity to work together to improve the lot of workers.”
“I think labour is heading in a very positive direction. There are obstacles; there are also weaknesses, particularly the capacity of the trade unions to deal with new and evolving situations.”
The unions have laid almost every labour and societal problem at the doorsteps of the ‘new economics’. Lay-offs, the migration to greater use of contract labour, the slowness of the Public Sector Negotiating Committee and other employers to resolve collective agreement issues in a timely fashion, even the increase in crime and violence are all consequences of capitalism gone bad.
But is this borne out by real life situations?
Economist and lecturer, Dr. Lester Henry says that while the adoption of neo-liberal economic policy has been good for the capitalist, it has resulted in a steady decrease in real wages and benefits for the worker since the 1970s. Drawing reference to the current medical debate taking place in the US, he argues that the complete deregulation of the health sector has almost put the cost of medical care, (the onus of which remains on the worker, unsupported by government or the employer) out of reach for the average American.
Dr. Henry contends that it isn’t just good moral sense to take care of the worker, but good economic sense as well. Healthier populations tend to lead to greater productivity and efficiency gains.
He also points out that neo-liberal economic policies tend to promote wide income disparities in populations and warns that continued adherence to this economic model could result in situations as in Mexico or Colombia, where ten percent of the population hold the wealth while everyone else lives in grinding poverty.
But will the unions’ usual response of forcing the hands of government and employers through strikes, calls for shutdowns and court action, be enough to counter neo-liberalism and its effects?
“New tactics are fine but the trade unions have to keep standing up. We can’t just blithely sit and join government and the employer. We have to attempt to reform the law as a moral duty…The trade union movement must understand that if it comes together things must happen.’ With reference to PTSC and TSTT, Cabrera continues, “ they never expected the trade union movement (both FITUN and NATUC) to start to protest the way we protested, which is why they told their people at the state companies to pull back.”
But this, at best is a temporary solution, since experience has shown it results in the setting of a new equilibrium point in hostilities between the parties, with tensions slowly building until the next big blow-out. Newton George, an Industrial Relations consultant, says some type of balance must be struck between the unions’ right to engage in industrial action and their responsibility to the labour relations process.
Far from seeing neo-liberal economics as the key determinant in the current worker/employer struggle, George believes it is more an issue of badly managed conflict resolution.
“There is a school of thought that comes out from the HR school of management which says that if we have proper human resource management there is no need for the union. Meanwhile, the labour relations school of thought says the unions are necessary to temper that balance of power between employer and worker. You have that conflict in between management and labour unions because of that dichotomy in ideology. And you have this exacerbated by the economic things that are taking place to produce now, to produce better, to produce things faster, to produce things cheaper.”
He believes solutions lie in education, that is more persons trained in conflict management. It is not enough to agitate for better laws, when there are few trained people to effect them. George says judgments handed down to by the Industrial Court should be made accessible and explained to the average worker. This way, labour relations do not remain distant to the everyday concerns of the employee. The IR consultant also thought that managers should encourage people to become more aware of industrial relations issues and saw a role for the Labour College in this.
Dr Henry’s solutions were more far-reaching, suggesting nothing short of the jettisoning of the neo-liberal model itself.
“At the heart of the neo-liberal is an offensive against developing countries and any kind of tendency towards humane development. They don’t want to see that because it affects their profits” he says.
One thing becomes apparent immediately though, the unions cannot continue on their current trajectory. One only has to remember the massive lay-offs of the 1980s and the effect on the trade union strength to this day to see why. Could the labour movement survive another period like that? The need for purposeful worker-centered trade union leadership becomes even more vital.