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PEOPLE & THINGS: Whither trade unions


Peter Wickham

PEOPLE & THINGS: Whither trade unions

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More than ten years ago while I was retained by the University of the West Indies in the delivery of their political science programme, it was popular to ask students to explore the future prospects for trade unions in the Caribbean in light of the industrial relations environment at that time.
These issues were already pertinent at that time since the decade of the 1990s had ushered in a phase of structural adjustment which colluded with the global shifts in industrial relations which appeared to threaten the viability of trade unions.
In the Caribbean trade unions had grown in popularity by delivering simple benefits to members. In the early days the public sector was smaller and the economies were based in agriculture and were relatively prosperous. It was therefore possible for trade unions to extract greater benefits from a capitalist class that was wealthy but stingy. There was no guaranteed work week, no NIS to cover workers in times when they fell ill or retired, and women who worked in the agricultural sector would be forced to relieve themselves in the same fields they cultivated.
If one looks back to the 1990s it was clear that much had changed. Our agrarian base had given way to services and what little was left of agriculture was struggling under the weight of its own lack of economic viability. It therefore made little sense to impose excessive demands on the planter class since that class was itself facing economic extinction. Governments had also become the main employers and the more successful union leaders had become leaders in government.
Independence was a game changer since with it brought responsibility for our own affairs. As such, the productive alliance between trade unions and government had by the 1990s become an unholy alliance as our leaders confronted the reality of the fact that better salaries, wages and working conditions could only be met where economic circumstances were permissive and for the first time there were no white people to blame for our inability to treat workers better.
The wave of structural adjustment that swept the Caribbean during the 1990s highlighted the artificial basis on which our economies were perched and the consequences of living beyond our means. The governments were forced to face the reality of a public service that was burdened with too many people who had little to do but needed a salary. Thousands of such people were summarily dismissed and while the trade unions protested there was little that they could do to stop their “cousins” in government from eliminating employees.
This environment was devastating to the unions in places like Barbados, where 20 000 workers who were still perspiring from marching in formation behind the “Grand Old Duke” were forced to accept the reality of a virtually powerless union. This had a two-fold impact since those workers who lost their jobs would not likely ever rejoin a union, while their colleagues who remained would question the logic of their continued membership.
The concomitant shift in the modes of production in the private sector cannot be properly explored here, but suffice to say there has been an exponential growth in the quantity of private contractors during and since the 1990s as companies learn the logic of having people work for themselves. As such, persons like me who have never known genuinely permanent employment have also never seen the logic in joining a union and continue to wonder why anyone else would.
This conviction was further strengthened in 1999 when the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) commissioned CADRES to execute its first (and presumably last) Membership Satisfaction Survey, which concluded that its members were not unhappy, but wanted the BWU to pay closer attention to getting better salaries and wages for its members. Alongside this assessment was the curious reality of companies like Cave Shepherd and Company limited whose workers have never been unionised, but who appeared to be no worse off than their colleagues across the street at Barclays, who were being released notwithstanding their loyal union membership.
I recently remarked to a colleague that the first trade union I will join is the Barbados Association of Retired Persons (BARP) since this is the only “union” whose membership has been growing exponentially. BARP offers its members benefits and, moreover, appears to be lobbying on behalf of these members in situations where it matters. Our traditional trade unions, on the other hand, seem determined to hasten their ultimate demise by exchanging their long-term viability for some dubious short-term benefit.
• Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).

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