If a poll were to be conducted today, we dare suggest that the trade unions would emerge among the most unpopular organizations in the eyes of Barbadians.
Based on the comments on the blogs and social media, there appears to be no love lost been the general population and the labour movement.
Nothing they say or do these days prevents Bajans thumbing their noses at them.
From the holding of meetings during school hours by the teachers’ unions, to the go-slow at the ports of entry and industrial action at Grantley Adams International Airport by the National Union of Public Workers, to their many other actions, threats, complaints and utterances, the unions are angering the population, which is simply fed up with them.
Troublingly, the labour movement seems oblivious to that fact, or worse yet, they are pompously ignoring the people, for they keep doing the same thing again and again without much of an effort to communicate with the population, or to try to get people to understand their perspective, even if they do not agree. In this regard, they are no different from the Freundel Stuart administration, which seems unwilling to communicate with Barbadians.
This notwithstanding, some of the recommendations coming from the public are even more troubling. One of the suggestions that has been put forward on the blogs and social media is for Government to crush the unions like the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and former American president Ronald Reagan did during their reign.
Let us try to put this recommendation in its proper context, beginning with the UK where we might even find some parallels.
Back in the 1970s the trade union movement was quite powerful and throughout the decade there were constant battles between the unions and government.
When the country was facing a problem with high inflation, Conservative prime minister Edward Heath planned to place a cap on public sector pay, increasing tensions with the miners’ unions, which argued that their wage were not keeping pace with price rises. The National Union of Mineworkers declared a work-to-rule, which in turn led to fuel supplies dwindling, triggering the imposition of a three-day week for commercial users of electricity.
Things got worse between 1978 and 1979 – by which time the Labour Party, backed by the unions, was in power. The winter became known as the Winter of Discontent due to the many strikes over plans to limit pay rises due to inflation, that left trash piling on street corners. Even gravediggers went on strike.
When a virulently anti-union Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, she set out to destroy the trade unions, referring to striking miners as “the enemy within”.
“We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty,” she said in a July 1984 speech to the backbench 1922 committee.
It epitomized her deep hatred for the labour movement and gave the country the green light to treat the miners’ union as outlaws.
By then, public support for the unions was low and by 1985 she had beat the miners’ strike, and demoralized millions of members.
Under Thatcher’s reign, those who defended union strength were seditious outsiders to be destroyed; and she engaged in anti-democratic measures to break the resistance of the miners’ union, including use of the police and security services to infiltrate and undermine the unions.
Between 1980 and the time she left office in 1990, nearly a half dozen Acts were passed restricting the unions’ ability to undertake lawful industrial action, outlawing sympathy strikes, restricting picketing and introducing ballots for official industrial action. Her government also interfered with the running of unions’ internal affairs by compelling certain forms of election for executive committees and general secretaries.
Employers could also gain injunctions from the High Court to stop unions undertaking strikes if there was any doubt as to their legality.
What this led to was not more jobs or better working conditions for workers, but employers using the laws to reduce staff and increase their profits. Thatcher’s close friend and backer Rupert Murdock exploited it well, using the Trade Union Act of 1984 as legal grounds to remove picketers from his new printing plant and firing 5,500 employees who had gone on strike, drastically reducing his payroll and saving £120 million. Is this what we want?
The other example is the staunchly anti-union Ronald Reagan, who on August 5, 1981 fired over 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, decertified their union and banned the fired workers from holding federal jobs ever again. Is this what we really want?
We hold no brief for the trade unions here and we believe they have to change the way they operate. Workers’ rights must always be paramount and they must find new, creative negotiating methods.
The unions must also go beyond issues such as wages and conditions of work and begin to use some of the membership fees they collect to undertake programmes that make the lives of their members better.
We applaud initiatives such as the credit unions, and attempts at affordable housing and their own supermarket.
However, now is the time to show results, to demonstrate forcefully that there is more to the labour movement than strikes and, to borrow a term from Mr Stuart, noises.
Still, someone has to stand for the rights of workers, but their demands must be in sync with economic reality.
However, we shudder to think what would happen if we mimic Thatcher and Reagan.
The Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde said, “When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.”
Be careful what you wish for.