In the American writer Eleanor H Porter’s classic 1913 classic children’s novel Pollyanna, the title character adopts an exceptionally optimistic outlook on life. She always found something to be glad about in every situation, no matter how bleak.
One would have to be Pollyanna to conclude that all is glowing with workers of our beautiful island in the sun. The many work stoppages in recent times point to an elevated level of discontent of the working class, who believe that their plight is being ignored by the ruling class.
Yet, you would have to be overflowing with Leibnizian optimism to conclude that the trade union movement has showered itself in glory during these trying times. In recent years, everything from their effectiveness to their usefulness has been questioned, and few have been willing to vouch for them.
Even in the wake of the march last year in support of forcibly retired employees of the Barbados Investment and Development Corporation (BIDC); the strike by sanitation workers and the threat to shut down the country, many Barbadians simply no longer believed in the unions.
The ruling class questioned the relative youth of the trade union leaders, those on the sidelines saw unimaginably infantile egos getting in the way and others concluded that those in charge suffered from personality disorders.
This is why the Barbados Workers Union’s (BWU) victory last week in the dispute with the Barbados Water Authority (BWA) was so striking and timely.
The relationship between labour and employer has always been a fickle one – the Social Partnership notwithstanding – with the two sides sometimes approaching the verge of internecine strife. And there were times during the row between the BWA and the BWU over increments, when it appeared that this was where they were headed.
However, BWU General Secretary Toni Moore’s handling of the situation was nothing short of brilliant, and her victory has, at least for the moment, put paid to the assertion that the institution that is the BWU has axiomatically lost the right to regard itself as great.
The willingness of its members at both Grantley Adams International Airport (GAIA) and the Bridgetown Port to so enthusiastically respond to its call to strike in solidarity with the BWA workers suggests there is still quite some bite left in that old dog.
Of course, it would be faux-naif to suggest that Moore has scaled the gates to paradise. However, she has come out of this dispute riding the clouds into seventh heaven. She had nothing to lose, but she played her hand well and she won it all, saving her reputation and that of the BWU in the process.
Maybe Moore can teach her counterparts at the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) a thing or two about how to settle a dispute. Firstly, there was never any doubt who was in charge of the troops. Moore was decisive and swift.
However, we often wonder whether an internal schism exists among the NUPW’s top brass. Only last week the dangerous display of division reared its head when NUPW President Akanni McDowall openly distanced himself from a letter written by General Secretary Rosalyn Smith to the GAIA boss David Barrow seeking a four per cent pay rise for airport workers for 2011. This at a time when McDowall and the union had been insisting that the employees were owned 3.5 per for that same year and had even called a brief strike at the airport to press its case. Not only did McDowall reenact Pontius Pilate’s washing of the hands, he threw his general secretary under the bus.
In any event, whether it was the very airport matter, or the dispute with the BIDC, or the vexing row surrounding the subsumption of customs officers into the Barbados Revenue Authority, in recent times, the NUPW has approached its own disputes with much sonorous fanfare only to tremulously retreat and resort to risible rearguard action.
Not even Pollyanna could find anything to be cheery about in the world of the NUPW. In the meantime, Moore can savour her well-deserved victory. Take a bow, Toni Moore.