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FIRING LINE: Union still relevant


Shantal Munro Knight

FIRING LINE: Union still relevant

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The present mood in the country seems to be one of impatience. Impatience with the Freundel Stuart-led Democratic Labour Party and their failure to announce a date for the elections, as well as impatience with the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union (BSTU) and the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) over their various ongoing labour disputes.
Discussing the delayed election announcement would perhaps be one of futility, in my opinion. Clearly, no amount of prodding, disgruntlement, analyzing or boycott will force this Prime Minister to take wise counsel and graciously announce the impending date. He will, when he feels like, according to his own rationale, that apparently is the position we have to live with. He has control over this. However, it is the people who will control the outcome – so we wait.
More important for me is the almost implicit anti-union sentiment which seems to be coming across from some segments of the population. Understandably, we have grown tired of the Alexandra School issue and of seeing Mary Redman in red. Now, we just want her and the BSTU to shut up and teach our children.
In the same vein, there seems to be some suggestion that the BWU, led by Sir Roy Trotman, is making a huff and puff about nothing and ought to stop threatening strike action and accept the best efforts that are being put on the table by telecommunications company LIME.   
A friend of mine went so far as to say that he could not understand why the union should have any role if a company decides to send home its workers, and that if he was in charge of LIME he would have walked away from the table ever since. I was not in the frame of mind to tell my friend at that time that his thinking was myopic and backward and, really, he perhaps ought to walk a mile in the workers’ shoes before he rushed to such judgment. What do we want? A process in which employers can hire and fire as the mood hits and profit margins dip? Is this supposed to be a best practice business model?
This sort of thinking is symptomatic of an employer class that fails to recognize that as much as they believe themselves to be the engine of growth in this country, they fail to recognize that workers are the oil that makes the engine work. True, employers make the investment and the business risk is theirs. However, employers are also responsible for the welfare of their workers in a symbiotic working relationship in which each needs the other.
Of course, businesses have to make strategic decisions and some of those, particularly in this environment, may include sending home workers. If you are a good employer that can perhaps be one of the most agonizing things for you.
A good employer, however, comes to that decision after having examined carefully the cause of poor business performance and exhausted all other options. They certainly do not lay the blame for poor performance at their employees’ feet and they certainly do not go about making decisions which would completely change the work context of the employee without at least having some discussion or informing them prior.
How soon we forget that all of the rights we enjoy – sick benefits, workers compensation, vacation with pay and so on – are rights fought for by trade unions, many of these things fought for on the picket line. Oftentimes, we fail to appreciate things because we assume they flew out of mid-air and landed in our lap. Guess what? No! Someone was the bad guy, someone fought for them.
The stock answer every time the system is challenged is that we ought not to do this or do that because it would have an impact on the economy. Somehow, the rights of workers, their families, dependents and ability or lack thereof to meet their commitments are all not part of the socio-economy. They reside somewhere on Culpepper Island.  
True, times have changed and I would be the first to say that the trade union movement has to modernize. However, when we equate that with the suggestion that it is no longer relevant and has no role to play in the current economy, we are treading on dangerous ground and perhaps playing into the hands of a system that would gleefully welcome the fall of its greatest nemesis and bulwark for the worker.
• Shantal Munro Knight is a development specialist and executive coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre.

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