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THE ISSUE: Changing role for unions

Natasha Beckles

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Trade unions have long been seen as the critical link between workers and employers that protects and advances employees’ rights through collective action.
The local labour movement had its genesis in the 1930s disturbances and has continued to make its presence felt.
Beyond advocating better wages and working conditions as part of the tripartite Social Partnership, unions have stressed the need to protect jobs during this difficult economic climate.
Worldwide, however, some features of the new work environment have led some to conclude that unions are losing their relevance.
These developments include the emergence of a global economy that forces companies to operate on a grand scale, the perceived powerlessness of unions to prevent layoffs, and the belief that job security is now more closely linked to the economic strength of the company and not to collective bargaining power.
There have also been suggestions that the labour movement needs to change with the times and go beyond concerns about wages and work hours.
In the March 20, 2012 DAILY NATION, St Paul’s Anglican Church rector Canon Wayne Isaacs said trade unions have a “critical” role to play in establishing peace in society and ensuring prosperity.
“As trade unions advocate for workers’ rights, organize activities for their moral and physical development, educate workers about their responsibilities to employers and look after their general welfare, they act as agents of peace,” Isaacs explained.
National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) president Walter Maloney said the aspect of trade unionism Isaacs spoke about fitted in with the NUPW’s position on social movement – looking after the entire being of the worker as a member of the union.
“Trade unionism is a product like anything else. We sell a service. So we need to make certain that whatever happens to the service we’re offering, we will be able to match what is happening within the economy and the society.
“So this is a time for all unions to look at the product and delivery of the product to see whether or not we need to improve on our product,” Maloney said.
He said the problem with the public service was that whatever changes were made to their product had to be within the context of Public Service Reform. Re-engineering within the union had to take all those factors into account. He mentioned business unionism, social mobility, and said social movement was the  most important.
“How do we now as a union start to look after the extra interests of our members?” he asked.
According to Maloney, some areas to be looked at were health, deviance amongst children, and issues with transportation and education.
In the February 22, 2008 WEEKEND NATION, then first vice-president of the 14-member Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations of Barbados (CTUSAB), Station Sergeant Hartley Reid, noted that with only 30 per cent of Barbados’ workforce unionized, legislation should be enacted to make sure every worker joined.
“The problem we have in Barbados is that not even half the workforce is unionized . . . . As few as 30 per cent of all workers are unionized, this is true.
“You could understand the struggles which the unions have in this country, because 70 per cent of the workers are benefiting from the subscriptions and the work of only 30 per cent,” Reid said in an interview.
“I have long called for legislation which says that every worker should be unionized. There is a reason for it. When a worker is not unionized, you have a situation where the employers take advantage.
“They are offered whatever salary there is and the workers have no recourse. Workers are exploited left, right, and centre; late payment of their salary or wages; shifting of their employment conditions; sometimes, they have no conditions at all,” he said.
The CTUSAB vice-president argued that with “all the anti-worker practices by unscrupulous employers” any legislation enacted by Government regarding mandatory signing up would mean the end of the “50 per cent plus one” of a company’s employees requirement for the union to be recognized.
“It would mean that even if one person is unionized in employment that the union of their choice would come in and bargain on their behalf,” Reid said.
He said that this move would also strengthen the Ombudsman’s role because he would be responsible for overseeing the operations of the trade unions.
“That can easily be done. Governments must stop hiding behind democracy, by stating every worker has a democratic right to be a member of a union or not. They are perpetuating a system where persons are continuing to live a parasitic life where they would benefit from the contributions and efforts of a few,” he said.
One of the reasons for workers’ reluctance to join a trade union may be that they do not think they cater to their needs.
In a letter to the editor in the December 3, 2008 DAILY NATION, Hutson Jones noted that in a changing society, all the key sectors must approach their business in a new and diversified manner.
“I am convinced that in our ever-changing society, the employees, trade unions and staff associations have remained virtually locked in an era that has long gone,” he said, noting that the trade union movement in Barbados is now a mature institution.
“It needs to look at its accomplishments beyond mere betterment of wages, helping to ensure social security legislation is on the statute books, shorter work hours and better work conditions.
“The trade unions must now work on a model where an ever-increasing number of workers can become owners of the businesses in which they work; that those who work in the public sector can also participate in the means of ownership, whether it be the purchase of Government paper or in some private sector entities; and that the workers are clear about all their rights, ranging from what entitlements their estate is due in case of sudden death or when is the best time to retire,” he said.
Jones said unions must recognize that they were now business units representing workers who want them to act on their behalf on housing, social security, consumer matters, health care, finance and education.