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LEFT OF CENTRE: Still need for trade unions

David Comissiong

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Tthe trade union is one of the fruits of the workers’ struggles of the 1930s.
In the 1930s, we had a social environment in the Caribbean in which the employing class was extremely dominant and workers were found in very exploitative and degrading positions.
The trade union was part of the effort to correct that imbalance between management and workers.
Since the birth of the trade union, we have established some type of equilibrium where there’s a balance of power between the hiring class and workers as represented by trade unions.
If we examine the era we live in today, capital – financial capital in particular – has become extremely mobile and extremely powerful.
We live in a time of economic recession and stagnation and increasing unemployment.
This can lend to a weakening of workers’ rights and exploitation.
The forces at play tend to strengthen the power of the employing class. Therefore, this is the worst time to talk about abandoning trade unions.
This is the precise time to balance [management’s interests] with enhanced worker power and this can only come through the pooling of workers’ power within the structure of the trade union.
In order for workers to have a sense of dignity and feel respected in the work environment, they must have a measure of worker control.
This cannot be delivered by workers acting as individuals.
It can only be delivered through the trade union.
However, in this era, the trade union needs to understand that its role is to fight for more than better wages and working conditions.
The trade union needs to focus much more on securing workers’ part ownership of the enterprises in which they work.
There needs to be a greater degree of focus on worker control and decision-making within enterprises.
Whereas in the 1940s and 1950s dignity might have come from an improvement in wages or working conditions, in 2012 this is not sufficient; it is necessary that workers share in ownership.
In Barbados, we have been blessed and cursed by the fact that we have one big, central private sector trade union and one big public sector trade union.
These are what are called establishment unions.
Big establishment unions tend to deliver social peace.
However, they also install bureaucratic structures at the top of the union, which diminishes workers’ control of the trade union.
That has hindered the development of a working-class feeling that the trade union belongs to them.
I think Barbados has gone too far into having centralized control. We have lost something vital in the idea of smaller trade unions where the workers themselves have control.
• David Comissiong is the head of the Clement Payne Labour Movement.

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