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THE CURRENT MOMENT in the history of the Caribbean labour movement is without doubt the most hostile to workers since the period of the uprising of the Caribbean working class in the 1930s.
Whilst before the 1930s there was no legal recognition of the right to exist as trade unions, the present moment is one in which, for the first time since the right was won, there is deliberate and coherent ideological and programmatic effort to emasculate the trade union movement, and to reverse the social gains made by labour.
This condition can be traced to the rise of the ideology of neo-liberalism, which is premised on the notion of the valorisation of the market, the unfettered facilitation of private wealth accumulation, the worship of individual greed at the expense of social solidarity, and the retreat of the state from social protection and economic development.
Trade unions and workers have been the main victims of these ideas. For example, notions of “small government” have resulted in massive public sector layoffs. Thousands of lives have been destroyed, and union membership has been depleted. Since these decisions are treated as “objectively necessary” and “common sense”, workers are often left with no legitimate defence since trade union leaders themselves imbibe the Kool Aid.
As the trade unions mark Labour Day 2016, it may be useful for them to reflect on their own failures to clarify their own ideologies in order to more effectively avoid falling into the trap of treating the ideas of capital as “universal ideas”.
This weakness is seen in Barbados, for example, where the so-called “social partnership”, which essentially is an institutional framework designed to guarantee the employer class of a “contained labour movement”, is treated by the Barbados trade union movement as “their” institution which must be defended at all costs. It is seen annually in the hijacking of the May Day celebrations by the business sector, with the “parades” resembling marketing more than labour rallies. The movement away from “collective bargaining” into lawyer-led labour tribunals is another example of these reversals.
The Caribbean labour movement needs to fully appreciate the hostility of the environment that currently exists and begin the process of renewing its ideological response to 21st century capitalism.
It should be remembered that the “eight-hour” day, which is being celebrated every May Day, was neither a gift from capital nor was it granted by a clause in Adams’ will. It was a hard-won concession by the global workers’ movement wrested from powerful interests that never concede anything without a struggle.
Unless our trade unions begin to throw up leaders who are less interested in enjoying power and cosying up to government and capital, then there will be little hope for the emergence of the deep intellectual and political response to neo-liberalism which the moment requires.
Forward ever; solidarity forever.
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