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EDITORIAL: Unions need to keep up with times


EDITORIAL: Unions need to keep up with times

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FOR MOST BARBADIANS, trade unions have been worthy institutions.

They have brought substantial benefits not only to their members, but have been pivotal in developing and sustaining a middle class in this country. Organised labour has had a good record over the past seven decades in fighting inequality and defending a voiceless and often unprotected workforce.

Yes, there have also been things about the unions which many Barbadians do not like. There is a disdain for some work rules considered dated and even situations where unions by their actions seem to have impeded economic growth.

In a market-driven economy where left unchecked unbridled capitalism will seek to exploit workers, what may appear to be a defiant stance taken by trade unions is often understandable. Even though there is a history to much of the capital-labour divide, things and times are changing and require new and different approaches to those of venerable labour leaders such as the late Sir Frank Walcott.

There can be no denying that the unions have brought important benefits. They have contributed to productivity improvements, enhanced workplace morale and reduced staff turnover.

But while capitalism has undergone major transformation in recent decades and is equipped for globalisation, the labour movement has tended to remain stuck in the old mode with a pre-colonial and early post-Independent outlook.

An increasing number of workers no longer have blind faith in trade unions while the rise of a professional class has led many to opt to negotiate their own labour contracts. The perceived weakness of the unions and the “licks” they have taken in recent years from both the private sector and governments would not have been confidence builders. Most people do not see that critical issue of protecting jobs as one the unions have been unable to defend, or to even hold on to gains made decades earlier.

This is why the suggestion from educator Dr David Browne for the trade unions to reinvent themselves in order to survive and be meaningful in a changing society is very relevant. The fight for better wages and conditions of pay can no longer be the main agenda item for labour leaders. Workers are looking for much more.

Our trade unions must not only look at offering effective representation at the workplace and in the economy but must be seen to be doing more for an increasingly sophisticated membership. The unions must address the basic questions facing society: job creation, higher productivity, poverty eradication, education, health-care reform, the decline of the welfare state and the impact of climate change.

Dr Browne has started an erstwhile debate which needs to be advanced. The unions must take up their role on behalf of working people in shaping the direction of this society.