The trade union movement has been very much in the limelight over the past seven to eight years. Attention has been drawn to it both by what it has been doing, and to that which it has not done.
In a period where Barbados has been adversely affected by a global recession that has resulted in negative to no economic growth, increased unemployment and basically a moratorium on salary increases, the relevance of the unions has been magnified.
One of the most important features that has driven Barbados’ development and fostered a culture of relatively peaceful co-existence among capital, labour and Government has been the Social Partnership. It has served Barbados well and long may it do so.
There are some who live safely and smugly in the halls of academia, often to a parasitic degree, who would make light of that relationship. Indeed, one such political thinker recently suggested in a veiled – some might argue condescending manner – that there was likely unholy compromise to be found in the DNA of the “good unionist”.
Among the several examples he drew while speaking at a function of the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW), was that the “good unionist” who believed fervently in the Social Partnership, and strived to make the Social Partnership work, often did so despite the fact that it might be a cover for legitimizing the disenfranchising of workers.
“It is a fine and wonderful compliment to the current leadership of the NUPW that in this moment when the call for brave, honest, sincere and genuine pro-worker leadership is at its loudest, that from all indications, you have been categorized, by those who do the categorizing, as bad unionists,” Dr Tennyson Joseph noted then.
We support the union movement; we support capital; and we support good governance. But we are cognizant of the fact that for each party to feast there must be fare on which to dine. Militant unionism will not bring into existence bounty that does not exist. Capital will not part with bounty that will undermine its survival. Nor should good government allow capital or labour to so undermine the fare that no one eats. It is about balance and finding the best methodology to arrive at that balance. And it might not always be about mutually acceptable balance, but that which is realistically feasible.
In the 1970s in Great Britain there appeared to be a perpetual war between the unions and the Edward Heath’s conservative government. At a time of high inflation in the country, the union movement was swift to take strike action and encouraged workers to work to rule. It was an environment that did the country more harm than good. The National Union of Mineworkers, for instance, advised their workers to do the very minimal on their jobs and this resulted in a decrease in fuel supplies in the country.
It was no surprise that in the 1980s when the Conservatives were returned to office following the Labour Party’s reign that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sought to and succeeded in breaking the back of the union movement. Perhaps, her thinking was that this was the only way everyone – to varying degrees – could fare on the cake.
Perhaps the only similarities between Prime Minister Freundel Stuart the late Prime Minister Thatcher is their facility with the Queen’s English. He has never overtly or tacitly shown a desire to destabilize or decimate the union movement. But he has issued a word of advice. He was quite pointed with that counsel last year.
“”So we were all justified in believing that our system of volunteerism was the best system for Barbados because it worked for us. All of a sudden now, like the rushing mighty wind on the day of Pentecost, we have some new actors on the scene who are basically telling us that all of that was nonsense; that what you do is to shut the country down at the first opportunity; that the aim of industrial relations is to teach the Government a lesson. And of course, all Barbadians have seen the extremes to which this new element is prepared to go. They have made it very clear this is new trade unionism. This is the new wine of industrial relations that we are all supposed to drink,” the Prime Minister contended.
Perhaps, Mr Stuart was saying that Barbados’ history of successful development had been built by “good unionists” in a situation where they recognized that what could be rendered unto Caesar was rendered, and what could not be rendered, simply was not.
Mr Stuart noted: “I have listened very carefully to all the utterances and I have noticed a few things. One, I have noted now that process has been banished to the limbo of forgotten things. You don’t have to go through processes anymore. I have noted that the word negotiation has been emptied of all of its significance. So you don’t have to negotiate anymore. What you do is to use bluster, to use bullying and to use blackmail.”
Recently president of the NUPW Akanni McDowall distanced himself from a policy decision by his general secretary Roslyn Smith. Though it was not a case of bluster, bullying or blackmail between the two, it led one to understand why there are some who fear the likely repercussions for Barbados in the era of the new trade union movement.