As I sit writing, two old wise heads, George Belle and Elsworth Young, are in a Voice of Barbados studio pleading a case to a Barbadian public that has grown numb to the idea that labour is the source of all wealth and all production, and the catalyst for most of the democratic and political advances in the Caribbean since the mid-1940s.
Sadly, Belle and Young felt compelled to preach to people, some now turned Government ministers, who boast of their past in unions, but who now show signs of historical amnesia.
Indeed, the effects of the 30-plus years of systematically reducing the power of organized labour in the Caribbean have been clearly evident in the current cases of industrial disputes led by the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union (BSTU)?and the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU).
Several decades of anti-left politics, the consolidation of free market ideology, the solidification of a petit bourgeois consciousness and lifestyle among union leadership, opportunistic infighting among various branches of union membership, and the uncritical acceptance of neo-liberal ideas, have now left the trade union movement struggling to have its legitimate aspirations acknowledged by a reactionary public.
Against the unions stand an arrogant private and public sector managerial elite, drunk on ideological claims of the triumph of individualistic capitalist greed, smug and confident in its ultimate victory. Among these can be counted a generation of new kings who see their lofty positions in managerial boardrooms as evidence of their own “brilliance”. They see little connections between their own exalted statuses and the efforts of their working class forebears.
All of these tendencies can be seen in current trade union struggles in Barbados. In the case of the BSTU struggle, it is clear that public sector managers feel themselves empowered by the apparent split in the teachers’ movement between the BSTU and the Barbados Teachers’?Union (BUT). The split, in itself, is indicative of the careerist opportunism among the working class leadership many of whom see their involvement in the union as a step to administrative or political evolution. In such a context, their confused and reactionary stances can be understood.
In the case of the BWU struggle, the employer’s response is a reaction, not to a perceived internal split in the union, but the consequence of arrogance on the part of a young, neo-liberal managerial elite, trained to place the “bottom line” over human need.
In either instance, what is at stake is the need for a stance to be taken to force upon the national consciousness. Sir Roy is correct in thinking that a point has to be made. A national strike is not “unreasonable”. Judging from what has been happening in Europe, it may be that a moment of intense struggle against neo-liberalism has arrived.
A period of active trade union struggle may finally signal Caribbean impatience with neo-liberalism.
• Tennyson Joseph is a political scientist at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, specializing in regional affairs. Email [email protected]