The overriding desire of every ruling party, especially leading up to a general election, is to secure as many favourable endorsements as possible from influential stakeholder organizations, in the hope of boosting its chances of re-election.
Such assessments of an incumbent’s performance carry considerable weight among specific interest groups which constitute significant blocs of voters who, once convinced of the relevance of the party’s programme to their needs, can be roped in as part of the party’s winning coalition.
The real value of such assessments, whether by a business group, trade union or civil society lobby, lies in their contribution to moulding the party’s perception which ultimately wields some influence on the voting decisions of members and affiliates.
As the late Sir Richard Haynes, who served as Minister of Finance in a previous Democratic Labour Party (DLP) administration once said, politics is largely about perception which particularly matters in an election year. From this standpoint, things increasingly are not looking good for the incumbent DLP. A cursory examination of public opinion would suggest its perception is generally negative.
As Barbadian workers observed the traditional May Day holiday yesterday, against the backdrop of declining living standards tied to the protracted economic crisis facing the island, the Freundel Stuart administration’s perception received a further blow. It took the form of a stinging rebuke from a major national stakeholder organization once considered a close ally of the DLP.
Such criticism was in stark contrast to years ago at May Day celebrations, especially during the 1960s and 70s when National Hero The Right Excellent Errol Barrow was prime minister at the head of a DLP Government and the “Heavy Roller”, as National Hero Sir Frank Walcott was affectionately called, led the BWU as its legendary general secretary.
To some degree, it could be said that the coming together of top BWU and DLP personalities back then, whether at May Day celebrations held at King George V Memorial Park or later the BWU Labour College’s grounds, also represented a symbolic celebration of a political marriage between the party and the island’s main union.
It is quite clear that this marriage has now been effectively broken down. In a no-holds-barred May Day address to workers yesterday on Browne’s Beach, BWU General Secretary Toni Moore was scathing in her criticism of the DLP Government, especially for reinstating a ten per cent pay cut for parliamentarians when public workers on the whole have not had a salary increase for almost ten years.
“Public servants for almost a decade now have not received a salary increase but what makes this situation more unpalatable is that public servants will be asked to accept further wage restraint and brace themselves for some bitter pills, all in the name of responsibility, when, at the same time, the leaders in Government put back on a ten per cent [on their salaries], which was taken off as a show of identifying with the people, a show of bearing pain as the people have been bearing. . .,” said Moore.
“So, we will not apologize to the leaders or as [late trade union leader] Sir Frank [Walcott] would have said, ‘the creatures of Government’ when we challenge that the Government of Barbados has failed to demonstrate leadership.”
Not only the BWU but several other Caribbean trade unions got into bed with ruling parties on the expectation that the relationship would have resulted in the delivery of various types of “goodies” for workers. Fundamental changes in the global economy over the past 25 years have eroded this relationship to the point that ruling parties are now increasingly seen as anti-worker and pro-capital.
Hence, the feeling among trade unions that workers’ interests have been marginalized. Considering that Ms Moore also took the opportunity to put Opposition Barbados Labour Party leader, Mia Mottley, on notice that the union was not looking for Government hand-out, it seems we very well could be witnessing a reconfiguration of the traditional political party-trade union relationship where the unions now apparently consider it to be in their best interests to adopt a politically neutral stance.
Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, addressing a party conference a few weeks ago, confidently spoke of leading the DLP to a third term in Government. Such, of course, is easier said than done. The pertinent question is, how will the DLP be able to pull off this feat if the workers of Barbados, who constitute the majority of voters and historically made up a high percentage of its political base, are of the perception that the DLP is no longer working to advance their interests?
Such sentiments are not limited to the BWU either. The same can also be said of the other major trade unions, especially the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) and the two teachers’ unions.