The trade union movement represents a key pillar on which modern Barbados and the Commonwealth Caribbean were built.
From the labour unrest that engulfed the region in the mid to late 1930s during the colonial era, trade unions emerged as a mass movement in the vanguard of an historic struggle to achieve a better life for the working classes who, since slavery, had been consigned to a fate of grinding and enduring poverty.
Across the region, trade unions then gave birth to political parties. Since adult suffrage, labour parties have dominated political life in almost every country, implementing a pro-labour agenda as the de facto political wings of trade unions.
Barbadian politics reflects this strong trade union influence. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the two dominant political parties define themselves as labour parties. The Barbados Labour Party (BLP) functioned in its early days as an arm of the Barbados Workers Union (BWU). The Right Excellent Sir Grantley Adams, the BLP’s founder leader, simultaneously served as president of the BWU.
The ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) which began as a splinter of the BLP, too recognized the strategic value of labour and entered an alliance with the BWU. With labour’s support, the DLP was able to cement itself in government from 1961 to 1976 by winning the support of workers who had the majority of votes.
The substantial contribution of the trade union movement to the modernization of Barbados and a better life for Barbadians cannot, therefore, be disputed. The evidence is in the many progressive pieces of social legislation which have defined modern Barbados. However, from the 1990s onwards, labour has steadily complained of marginalization, even though it sits on the social partnership which was established around that time to contribute to national decision-making on key issues.
At the BWU’s annual delegates’ conference last weekend, the marginalization of the trade union movement was a major talking point. The private sector but also elements in the public sector were accused of engaging in activities to weaken the trade union movement so that employers once again can have the upper hand and workers would be at their mercy.
With labour leaders using strong words like “pounded”, “hammered”, and “pummeled” to describe what was happening to trade unions, a comparison was drawn with trade union-busting activities that have taken place in the United Kingdom and the United States over the last few decades, especially under the conservative administrations of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
While these external pressures cannot be discounted, the trade union movement too has itself to blame for some of the current challenges. Like many institutions across the region, it has not moved with the times and, as a result, has failed to adapt adequately to fundamental societal and economic change that has altered the environment in which it has to operate.
When trade unions were established in the Caribbean, each country was basically an agricultural economy where manual labour was dominant. This made it easy for unions to organize workers because a collective approach offered the best hope for effectively negotiating with employers to secure better pay and working conditions. They also had government in their corner back then.
The region and the wider world have fundamentally changed since those early days. At the mid-point of the second decade of the 21st Century, the global economy is knowledge-based and relies more on intellect than manual labour for its success.
At the same time, there has been a fundamental shift of values where people today are more individualistic and more inclined to pursue their interests singlehandedly, instead of through a collective approach offered by the trade union movement. Not surprising, trade union membership has been in decline.
Additionally, governments today are basically servants of the market economy committed to working with various interests, instead of aligning itself almost exclusively with one group, such as labour, as was the case before. Seen from this perspective, the relevance of “labour” parties and governments today is highly debatable.
To what extent the trade union movement has reflected on these issues is unclear. Instead of complaining about marginalization and seemingly yearning for government protection, the trade union movement needs to come up with a strategy to deal effectively with these realities of the modern environment. Failure to do so will only lead to more and more marginalization.