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by Dennis DePeiza
Trade union leaders are usually persons who are held in high esteem by the members of the public. This is mainly because of the profile of these individuals as leaders and representatives of workers. They are expected to be influential in helping to shape national policy and decision making. As civil society leaders, they are expected to command the attention and respect of the political directorate. It is generally accepted that trade unions are in part political organizations. While trade unions have a political interest, they have a responsibility to monitor the policies, decisions and actions of Government. The extent of the political interest and actions of trade unions, is not expected to be based on political partisanship.
It is inconceivable to think that the individual trade union leader does not have the same constitutional rights as any other citizen to freedom of choice and association. These are constitutional rights that give the individual the freedom to support a political party of his or her choosing. When it comes to the representation of a collective body of workers, the trade union leader is expected to exercise good judgment, always being conscious that it would be inappropriate to bring their individual support for a political party to bear on the decision making and actions on the behalf of the collective body of workers that their
The history of the Caribbean reveals that dating back to the 1930’s, those who lobbied on the behalf of the working class and the oppressed, did so not only as social activists, but more so as political activists. It is a fact that several of these agitators and lobbyists, entered the political arena, with many emerging from labour unions and thereafter finding a place in the House of Assembly as a member of a political party. The move to enter the House of Assembly was a means to bring about the changes required. In the context of the time, this was a necessity. In an age when trade unions have clearly established themselves, carrying the numerical strength of the working class to help them to forge ahead, it raises some questions as to why trade union leaders would want to aspire to be a part of an individual political party.
In a polarized political society, it is questionable as to the wisdom of such a move, when it can be reasonably assumed that this can fundamentally divide the trade union membership. There is nothing which says that a trade union should not support a position put by a political party, especially if it is found that there is merit for such support. Trade unions are better off if they can maintain their independence from any political party and the Government, and to do so for the simple reason that they can remain best placed to exert pressure if and when necessary; without feeling a sense of compromise in doing so.
In the 21st Century in which we live, where changes are being enforced with a highly level of rapidity, it is hardly expected that trade union leaders would want to align themselves with a Government. They are expected to represent the interest of their membership, particularly where repressive actions of Government are being contemplated. This is a cause for concern, when there are reasons to believe that arbitrary changes and impositions are being made without the voice of labour putting up a case against these positions. It gets worse if a trade union organisation which is represented within a political party, goes as far as to advance a position that there should not be a wage and salary increase for workers. Some would refer to this as preposterous.
The point is to be reiterated, that it is difficult to separate trade unions from politics. As a matter of fact, it comes as a part of the course. The solution is that the level of involvement in the political process and the separation from partisan politics, can make all the difference. Trade unions would be best advised not to take the offer of inclusiveness to heart. In many cases, it can be a proverbial death trap and one which is intended to silence trade unions.
Trade union leaders would be better off if they continued on a path that requires them to be concerned with the mobilisation and organisation of workers, promoting unification and worker solidarity, promoting good governance, promoting workplace ethics and the observance of good workplace standards and practices, promotion of ILO Labour Standards, promoting of best practices in the workplace, promoting democratic principles, promoting equal opportunities in employment, promoting the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual and promoting the trade union agenda. At the end of the day, it is critical that close attention is paid to promoting, monitoring and maintaining the independent identity of the trade union.
Dennis DePeiza is a labour & employee relations consultant, Regional Management Services Inc. Visit our Website: www.regionalmanagement services.com