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FILE PHOTO: OWTU members protesting outside the Petrotrin Pointe-a-Pierre refinery.

Raphael John-Lall

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T&T’s unionised workforce fell from a high of 40 per cent in the 1980s to roughly 18 per cent in 2021.

Veteran trade unionist Cecil Paul, who gave the Sunday Guardian these estimates, attributes this drastic reduction to structural changes in the economy over the last 30 years.

During the 1970s, the socialist ideology which was popular at that time convinced many that the state should manage the “commanding heights of the economy.” The newly nationalised industries of that era in banking, water, electricity and others had strong trade union membership.

Times have changed and the doctrine now around the world encourages state-run industries to be privatised and most of the times, trade unions are decimated as collective bargaining is replaced with individual contracts.

T&T workers are still unionised in a few major industries like oil, electricity and water but over the last three years, those key sectors like heavy industries, oil, other energy companies and major manufacturing have reduced their workforce.

Recent examples include Unilever sending home over 200 workers in 2019 and the closure of Petrotrin resulting in thousands of jobs being lost.

T&T is not the only country that has seen trade unions lose membership as it is a worldwide trend.

According to the US Bureau of Labour statistics in 1983, 20 per cent of the American workforce was unionised. By 2019 the membership plummeted to 10 per cent.

Debates have raged over the years about if trade unions will disappear and what unions can do survive.

Should unions own businesses? The most recent example is the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union-owned Patriotic Energies and Technologies Company Limited’s attempt to acquire the former Petrotrin refinery.

Should trade unionists move on to party politics and use it as a new platform to fight for better working conditions for working-class people? The most prominent example is former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday who was a former leader of the All Trinidad Sugar and General Workers’ Trade Union.

The Joint Trade Union Movement (JTUM) held a motorcade from San Fernando to Port-of-Spain in January in which JTUM President said the industrial climate is worsening in T&T and this has to be a turning point for the country’s trade unions.

Several industrial relations experts and former trade union leaders spoke to the Guardian and weighed in on the debate.

Trade union functions

Lesmore Frederick, industrial relations specialist and a lecturer at the Arthur Lok Jack Global School of Business, listed a number of functions of trade unions which include collective bargaining and maximising terms and conditions of members.

Unions also have an economic function which involves ensuring that workers’ wages are adequate so that they can contribute to the workplace and the profits of the business which would result in its survival.

Rudy Indarsingh, UNC MP and former All Trinidad Sugar and General Workers’ Union leader describes unions’ basic role as seeking better terms and conditions of members. This should not only be about money but include training of workers, better healthcare, housing among other needs of workers.

Joseph Remy, President of the Federation of Independent Trade Union (FITUN) said the basic function of a trade union should be defending the rights of workers such as collective bargaining, handling all Industrial Relations issues like grievances and disputes and representing the affairs of the working class on the job site and in the community.

Labour and politics

Frederick believes that party politics is simply an extension of workplace politics and it is natural for trade unionists to enter the realm of politics.

Trade unionists entering politics is not just a local phenomenon but is widespread internationally. The British Labour Party is the natural ally of the British trade union movement.

Even locally, trade unions have courted different governments. He used the example of The Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) shortlived involvement with the People’s Partnership Government. Former OWTU leader, Errol McLeod became that Government’s Labour Minister.

McLeod was the founding leader of the MSJ when he won the seat in 2010. At that time, the MSJ justified their entry into politics as wanting to give working-class people a voice in national politics. The relationship soon soured over issues of corruption and the MSJ, then part of the People’s Partnership coalition pulled out of the coalition in 2012 and distanced itself from McLeod.

Whether or not it was a successful relationship, Frederick said the unions at that time saw it necessary to get involved to influence the political economy.

In 2010, Former Public Services Association (PSA) President, Jennifer Baptiste-Primus publicly announced that she joined the PNM. When the PNM won the elections in 2015, they continued the People’s Partnership tradition of appointing a former labour leader as Labour Minister.

By then the OWTU had long distanced themselves for the UNC and before the 2015 elections, JTUM signed an MOU with the PNM to work together on issues affecting the country.

Baptiste-Primus told the Guardian that the trade union movement has always been interlocked with politics and trade unionists ending party politics is nothing new.

She advised trade union leaders who get into party politics to separate politics from their trade union activities as labour leaders “cannot serve two masters at once.”

Indarsingh also supports the view that it is the right of trade union leaders to aspire to the highest political offices of the land.

Remy pointed out that it was the labour movement in the 1930s and events surrounding 1937 that laid the foundation for the right to vote for all citizens. In this way, trade union activism was always linked to politics.

He gave examples of political parties that are tied to trade unions across the Caribbean and these include Barbados Labour Party and United Labour Party in St Vincent and the Grenadines.

He argues that to change the economic and social conditions of workers, this usually has to be done at the political level.

Frederick believes that trade unions too can be “model entrepreneurs” and Patriotic’s attempt to buy the refinery is an example of that.

Indarsingh agreed by saying that union leaders must be innovative and come up with new ways of generating income for their membership. However, he said that union leaders must practise what they preach and must be transparent when spending and investing workers’ money.

Remy said managing a trade union is essentially running a business and that qualifies them getting into other types of businesses.

Productivity

While there are concerns about levels of productivity in T&T’s workplaces and industry Frederick said that business owners must produce data to show this.

He gave past examples of “model labour management” relations such as Republic Bank and Banking, Insurance and General Workers’ Union (BIGWU), Trinidad Cement Ltd (TCL) and OWTU as examples of management and labour working together to increase productivity.

In general, workers will give an output that is consistent with the wages they receive. If they receive low wages, their productivity will not be high.

Indarsingh believes that business owners must ensure that workers raise their output. After all, it is the right of business owners to manage.

Remy argues that workers can only give their best in the workplace if they have a decent standard of living.

Business owners must do more to motivate their workers to produce more thus generating profits for the business.

Trade union survival

Labour Minister Stephen Mc Clashie has taken the stance that unions are now more relevant than ever given the changes in the economic and social spheres over the last few decades.

“The unions are even more relevant now than in the past given the rapid changes in the way work are done and the potential for exploitation. But maybe their focus needs to change from being adversarial to being more consensus-driven.”

On the issue of productivity, the Labour Minister stated that productivity is a complex issue where all stakeholders must play their role.

“It’s a balancing act as the unions world argue that productivity is high while business owners would argue that it is low. There is an acceptable level of productivity where both parties benefit. So I think that we need to get to that stage.

He concluded by staying that dialogue is important.

“We don’t have to be best friends as we see things from different perspectives. But I hope we come to the table in an amateur way and deal with the issues that confront us.”

Employees of American tech giant Google recently formed a union and Remy used this as an example of people still believing in the philosophy of labour unions and what they stand for.

Remy said a lot of the new jobs being created in T&T are low paying jobs in the informal sector and these are difficult to unionise. He added that the labour laws need to be modified which would allow organizing workers much easier.

Baptiste-Primus also believes that trade unions will always have a future as “employers are not always fair.”

However, she added that trade unions must adapt to the changing world and to the current COVID-19 era where many businesses are closing their doors.

“No one in this country knows how many businesses have folded. I would advise trade unions not to focus on wage increases at this point but focus on keeping their members in jobs. Half a loaf is better than none.”

Indarsingh is confident that trade unions will survive but recommends that unions modernise how they conduct their businesses.

The minimum wage, the right to healthcare, the right to housing, the right to education all came out of the struggles of the trade union movement of the 1930s.

Workers will always need the right to have redress in the workplace, they will always need to have collective bargaining rights, they will always need fair wages and if there are no trade unions to fight on their behalf then this could lead to social upheaval.

He advised this current crop of union leaders to push for legislative changes that would improve the lot of workers.