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    July 20

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RON IN COMMON: Trade unions need full-time leaders

ERIC SMITH, ericsmith@nationnews.com

Added 17 December 2016


THIS YEAR HAS been a turbulent one for labour relations in Barbados.

Perhaps this has been the case for a number of years now, but it simply did not resonate as it has in 2016. Given the range of issues facing workers in all sectors in both the private and public sector, it is unlikely that 2017 will be any different. The tempestuous atmosphere will prevail.

Toni Moore and the Barbados Workers’ Union started talking tough and showing what strength in numbers can achieve.

The National Union of Public Workers was all over the place, with president Akanni McDowall at times looking like a full-time trade union officer fighting rearguard actions with Roslyn Smith and Delcia Burke.

Mary Redman of the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union (BSTU) and Pedro Shepherd of the Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT) seemed to be locked in never-ending battles defending some cause for their members.

Some people may very well argue that Redman and Shepherd seem to be in eternal fights, either with the Ministry of Education, the management of some school, the Caribbean Examinations Council, or simply coming out in solidarity with a fellow union. Neither Redman nor Shepherd are going to have a big fan base, and may be considered “humbugs” by many, but they are not in their respective positions to win a fan base, even though that is important for a trade union leader.

Yet, not even their most vocal critic can deny that these two have a passion and commitment for what they are doing. They remind many of the late John Cumberbatch when he led the BUT in its infancy.

But in 2017 leading a trade union is going to call for much more than just defending members. This is why trade unions as big as the BUT and the BSTU and with the range of issues facing confronting them need full-time professional leadership.

In other words, a paid general secretary or chief executive officer or whatever title is given, should be assigned to do the job all day and every day. The voluntarism which has guided both of these unions cannot suffice going forward. For the BUT it would be a return to an earlier experiment when it at one stage employed the late Carlisle Mascoll as its full-time officer.

The unions are demanding a new approach and a level of professionalism from employers. They too must behave similarly and take the lead. Both the BUT and the BSTU get a monthly fee from their members which may or may not be able to fund a full-time secretariat for their respective unions.

The funds may not be able to support two separate secretariats but if unified may meet the objectives. It sends a message to both the BUT and the BSTU that the time has come for them to consider unification, since they are fighting the same causes, the same ministry, the same management.

Whatever caused them to be two separate and distinct unions no longer exists; the teachers at Harrison College and Queen’s College are treated and paid no differently to those at Parkinson and St Leonard’s Boys’.

But even over and above that, Redman and Shepherd are first and foremost teachers, as are the members of their executives, and must therefore devote a certain amount of time to their classrooms doing their primary function on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. As elected trade union officials they will have to spend time out of the classroom fighting fires, defending causes and enlightening people. But they are not being paid by the state to perform union duties.

The unions need to have professional industrial relations officers and should lean on trained personnel to take the day-to-day lead in their organisations. The era of voluntarism to lead trade unions is long gone.

Redman and Shepherd must recognise that being a trade union leader cannot be ridden with contradictions.


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