It seems as though much of the success of the labour movement which has been nurtured over the last 50 to 60 years, is hanging in the balance.
Barbados’ industrial relations are hinged on the principle of volunteerism. A critical element which must be present for volunteerism to work, is trust. The union must have enough trust in the government that all situations will be handled in good faith. The government must also depend on the union to ensure, wherever possible, there is no unnecessary upheaval in the work space of the country.
The union bosses themselves have called for some elements of the volunteerism agreement to be enshrined in law. However, I think the latest situation that the union movement finds itself facing is perhaps the loudest beacon that volunteerism, as we know it in Barbados, has served its usefulness.
In keeping with the kind of discussion that I think should be underpinning any celebration of 50 years of Independence, let us not only analyze this issue from the perspective of Akanni McDowall but let us use it to brush up on Commonwealth Caribbean unionism 101.
There are several pieces of incorrect information which I have picked up over time as the Caribbean trade union movement is discussed. The most problematic of these is whether the union should be political or not. This question has not only engaged the attention of individuals looking for a long hop for the call-in programmes.
George Eaton is among several academic writers who have examined the structure of trade unions in the Caribbean. He coined the term ‘political unionism’ to define what emerged in the Commonwealth Caribbean islands. The fundamental point which Eaton bears out about how trade unionism in the Caribbean emerged is that he points to the twinned emergence of the union and the political party.
It was not a question of the political party emerging first and then influencing the union or the union first and then influencing the political party. During the 20 year period from 1938, the political party and the trade union in the Commonwealth Caribbean emerged due to the persistent poverty and remnants of the apartheid system of ownership and wealth. So the trade union in the Caribbean has always been political and the historical record bears that out.
What has changed is that whereas the political party and the trade union shared a common master in the masses of Caribbean people at their genesis, they are now both serving different masters. The nationalist underpinning which guided trade unions and political parties has been systematically eroded and supplanted by globalist agendas.
The Commonwealth Caribbean, including Barbados, is struggling to define what the underpinning philosophy will be moving forward and this is exactly the Bermuda triangle that Akanni McDowall, the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) president, finds himself swirling in.
The union movement in Barbados after 1994 has been relatively benign. Perhaps, in keeping with the national and international trend, the union has done more by negotiation and diplomacy. By the change of administration in 2008, a latent murmur about the union losing its way, and not serving its constituency had turned into a chorus. The disquiet reached a crescendo in 2014, when a march for workers to show their dissatisfaction with the sending home of various public sector employees was called off.
The Democratic Labour Party (DLP) government had used the promise of no retrenchment in the public sector as a pillar in its 2013 re-election bid. After the workers were sent home, and civil servants still were not being offered a pay increase, frustration turned to a loss of confidence and NUPW started seeing some decline in membership numbers.
McDowall assumed the NUPW presidency in 2015 with this as the backdrop to his tenure. The body politic of the union was demanding a new direction and an end to diplomacy as the primary mode of negotiation. The members of the union wanted a recommitment to the workers and the workers’ agenda as the primary master of the trade union movement.
McDowall’s presidency did not represent a passing of the baton from the generals of the final years of the twentieth century to the guardians of the new century. His presidency was a metaphorical break in the globalized agenda and the place of workers in that agenda. His presidency was also a continuation of a practice started as early as the 1980s, in which there is increasing separation between the trade union and political party.
McDowall, as far as we have record, is not an active member of either of the two political parties. Although members of his executive are openly aligned with parties, McDowall’s leadership is without such association. This is both blessing and curse as perhaps his motives and actions will always be questioned.
I am not, however, completely convinced that the current battle McDowall faces can simply be answered by him not towing partisan lines. Barbadian society has always taught me to delve deeper. McDowall is being treated the way he is because he is seen as a ‘come yuh’. More than anything, he is paying for his age and audacity to challenge a system which he is perceived as having no right to challenge.
McDowall took over the NUPW leadership at 35 years of age. He has acted as Health Promotions Officer for two years. In June of this year, he was elevated to Health Planning Officer. McDowall holds a Master’s degree in Public Health. Such is our society that we are not concerned about reverting a national figure to an entry level job (with a Master’s degree); we instead cannot understand why McDowall’s removal is highly irregular.
When Grantley Adams started the Barbados Workers’ Union, he was eight years McDowall’s senior. Union bosses with punch in Barbados are closer to retirement age. In fact, it is perhaps because they are so close to retirement age that they are so inept at ‘shaking things up’. We need to ask questions about the situation in which McDowall finds himself. We need to ensure that we are not stepping outside of the acceptable norms of the International Labour Organization for ensuring that workers do not fear intimidation or victimization for association.
Some people would go as far as to say we should ask if McDowall is a ‘lodge man’ or if he has any family in high places. Some think the answers to these questions may reveal more about why McDowall is perceived the way he is.
I am not sure how relevant these reflections are but I sense that we are watching another chapter in our nation’s history play out in real time.
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies. Email [email protected])