Ever since the 1940’s, trade unions in the Caribbean have established a close relationship with traditional political parties. This came about as trade union leaders of that era sought to create alliances with political interests in the quest to fight social injustices.
As was the case in the then British Guiana, there was a marriage of convenience where the Guiana Industrial Workers Union which was founded in1946, joined forces with the People’s Progressive Party which came into existence in 1950, to contest the 1953 general elections in that country.
The experience in Jamaica saw the National Workers Union being formed by the People’s National Party. In Barbados, the experience was somewhat different, as the Barbados Progressive League presented itself as both a political party and as a trade union.
The promotion of political unionism has been advantageous to labour unions in that it has contributed to both advocacy and political action. As a direct outcome, there have been improvements in the working conditions of workers. The social platform agenda, inclusive of the economic wellbeing of the people and that of the nation, has been high on the agenda in the collaboration that has been initiated between labour and the political interests.
Labour would consider that it has benefitted from having a louder voice in the airing of its concerns, and through the lobbying process, influenced the bringing about of changes at the national, regional and international levels.
The influencing of the introduction of new and progressive labour legislation has been evident across the region. The thrust in this direction has been driven by the various conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO), which labour unions have either encouraged or pressured national governments to ratify.
On the surface, it would appear that political unionism is an ideal arrangement which enhances national governance. It would be idealistic to think that this arrangement would be one of comfort in satisfying the needs of labour and political interests.
The drawback has been identified in an online article by Jan Techau (Berlin Policy Journal, July 13, 2015), who wrote: “In politics, sovereignty bargains mean surrendering core state powers. And the usefulness of the outcome does little to establish legitimacy – in the political realm, legitimacy is created through input, i.e. the participation of the voters, the actual sovereign.”
The compromising of political power will most certainly prove to be a problem, as it is highly unlikely that any political party and more so one that constitutes the government of the day, will concede power, authority and its right to exercise control.
Caribbean trade unions can only but learn from their own experiences, and should therefore think carefully of entering into convenient arrangements which, in the short and long term, can prove to be more damaging than anticipated.
Take, for example, the situation in Trinidad and Tobago, where during the 2010-2015 tenure of the People’s Partnership administration led by Kamla Persad Bissessar, trade unions joined with other political interests to form a coalition government. History will recall that as the arrangement fell apart, trade unions then joined forces with the opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) to move their agenda forward.
The summary of this episode of political unionism going wrong was captured in a newspaper article headlined Trade unions plot ‘hurricane’ protest, written by Verne Burnett, and published in the Tuesday, July 11, 2017 edition of Newsday. The article reads in part:
“Three of the country’s major labour federations are threatening a hurricane of a protest on August 4th against bad governance and the retrenchment of workers.
“It’s time to shake up this blasted place and let those who took the job to govern, govern properly. ….The people of Arima are no different from the people in Port of Spain, and San Fernando and Sangre Grande, Mayaro and throughout the country because anywhere you go the people are disenchanted, dissatisfied and they are suffering…”
In fact, Ancel Roget, President General of the Joint Trade Union Movement (JTUM), said that it was probably because the trade unions had not been active enough that there had been such a display of bad governance manifested in disrespect for workers and the trade union movement.
In response to a question, Roget said the “tripartite conversation” has failed.” “Are they committed to tripartism and the body that is responsible for that failed to excite and to ignite the type of discussion to really get things going. You would imagine that in this period more than any other period that is required but the Government failed. As a matter of fact while we were discussing, Government and employers were sending workers home.”
“You would recall the Tourism Development Corporation (TDC) workers among others, so how could we be in discussion discussing how should we share the burden of adjustment and at the same time the Government, who is one of the tripartite partners in that arrangement, they are sending workers home. And that is wrong and we said that we will withdraw ourselves until you halt that and then we will come back to the table because we are all equals.”
Among other things, the August 4th protest was to demand an end to mass retrenchment; sustainable jobs; the settlement of outstanding negotiations; increased minimum wage; timely payment of pension and gratuity to Police; teachers; public sector workers; the end to contract labour and support for local farmers.
The moral of this story is for trade unions leaders to think before they act.