I was in my Bridgetown office on May Day (also known as Labour Day) doing some work, when I heard and witnessed the May Day parade passing by on Crumpton Street.
What initially attracted my attention were the massive music trucks equipped with disc jockeys and booming sound systems. As they passed my office they were blaring two soca songs – Wutless by the Trinidadian band known as Kes, and We Ain’t Got No Behaviour by Mikey – to a crowd of revellers bedecked in corporate-sponsored T-shirts.
It seemed to me that I was witnessing a re-incarnation of the now defunct t-shirt band segment of the Kadooment Day revelry, and I could not help wondering what any of this had to do with celebrating and commemorating the workers’ cause and historical struggle.
But, truth be told, it had become clear to me several years ago that the Barbados Workers Union-sponsored Labour Day activities had lost much of their original legitimacy. I had received convincing evidence of this when I came across a memorandum from Management of the West India Biscuit Company giving directives to their employees as to their participation in the May Day parade, and instructing them as to what they were and were not permitted to do. Clearly, the May Day parade was no longer an expression of worker power and agency! It is no wonder therefore that the vast majority of workers now parade in corporate sponsored T-shirts!
But the deficiencies of the May Day parade are merely symptomatic of a deep and profound defect in the labour movement of Barbados itself. This defect is rooted in the fact that the top leadership of the two major trade unions has, for some considerable time now, become monopolised by a relatively narrow group of persons who can only be described as labour bureaucrats. The reality is that a permanent labour bureaucracy has been installed in our trade union structures for several decades now.
The problem with such a structural bureaucracy is that it divests ordinary workers of a sense of ownership and hands-on participation in “their” trade unions. It seems to me that as the labour bureaucrats secured themselves in position and power, the trade unions came to reflect — more and more — the perspectives and interests of the bureaucracy, and gradually lost the interest and involvement of their increasingly sidelined mass membership.
Whatever there was in early Barbadian trade unionism of working class agency, will, energy, attachment to an ideal, and attachment to a sense of dignity, has gradually receded under the rule of the labour bureaucrats, as ordinary workers came to feel that the trade union no longer truly belonged to them.
No doubt there is a legitimate need and place in the trade union for the skills of the bureaucrat, but the bureaucracy must be kept in check and must not be permitted to dominate and monopolise the leadership. And unfortunately this is what seems to have happened with our two largest unions.
The end result has been a tragic decay of our major trade unions. The proof of this can be seen in the fact that none of our trade unions any longer possesses the clout to stage a major strike — they can only resort to big talk and bluffing. And if you doubt me, just go and talk to the still dismissed Sandy Lane Hotel workers, the Royal Shop sales clerks, and the LIME employees!
Further proof of a tragic loss of a sense of purpose and of a serious orientation to the interests of the mass of workers can be seen in the current irresponsible and self-centred behaviour that underlies both the unceremonious jettisoning of Sir Roy Trotman as Barbados’ labour representative to the ILO, and the inappropriate response of the BWU leadership that has resulted in the BWU pulling out of the Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations of Barbados.
The rule of the labour bureaucrats has also been marked by a relative failure to use the considerable sums of money contributed by the workers to the trade unions in the form of dues to establish and develop concrete assets for the workers.
After almost 75 years of trade-unionism in Barbados, the only significant assets that the workers can point to are the Labour College, a couple credit unions and a modest housing development. By contrast, in a country like Singapore, the trade union movement has acquired a formidable stock of assets that includes a major publicly listed transportation company; a consumer cooperative that owns and runs several shops and stores, and a chain of supermarkets; several insurance companies; child care centres; hospital clinics; a broadcasting station; a seaside resort hotel for workers; and a golf course equipped country club for workers.
It is my wish to see the trade union movement survive and thrive in the Barbados of the future. But if this is to happen there must be major reforms. And it seems to me that a reform process will only commence if the more enlightened and responsible members of† the current bureaucratic leadership can bring themselves to recognise that this dominance of the bureaucracy is crippling worker interest and initiative in the unions, and that basic self-preservation now requires significant change.
The single greatest change should be an initiative to decentralise the two major trade unions, and to give greater autonomy and mass control to the various union divisions. Make an organised, self-conscious effort to give divisions of the union such as the hotel workers division or the construction industry division greater autonomy and decision-making power, and encourage a leadership revolution from below that puts the leadership and control of these divisions more firmly in the hands of their base membership. In other words break up the static over-centralized control of the bureaucracy and start a process of democratization from below.
This would constitute a critical structural reform that could ultimately lead to a democratic-based , mass participatory, revival of the entire trade union movement. But are the leaders of the bureaucracy capable of such a paradigm shifting effort?
* David Comissiong is president of the Peoples’ Empowerment Party.