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The struggle continues

Sunday, December 14, 2014

With oil prices in decline, Petrotrin complaining about poor financial results, and Christmas just around the corner, it is not surprising that the Oilfields Workers Trade Union took the decision not to call its workers out on strike in support of their bargaining position, as they were otherwise legally entitled to do.

Because you have the power to do something does not mean that you have to exercise it. As mature and sensible as this decision was, I am certain that the executive of the OWTU will get little credit for having acted in such a responsible manner.

The trade union movement is seen as a disruptive force in society. That they battle against sexual harassment at the workplace, unsafe and unhealthy conditions at work, inequality in pay, and general injustice and exploitation of workers is seldom acknowledged or applauded, even when it gets prominent media attention. 

The reinstatement of 68 men and women is not greeted with a welcoming embrace, notwithstanding the respite from financial hardship which 68 families can look forward to. Rather, it is seen as imposing an intolerable burden on an employer’s bottom line.

The fact is that trade unions make a substantial difference to the lives of their members on a daily basis, in the improved benefits they are able to negotiate, in the summary dismissals they are able to avert. Even so, they get insufficient recognition for their contribution to the well-being of countless citizens. 

My father may have been one of the few exceptions to this general trend. He was the manager of a factory and had to come up against the might of the Transport and Industrial Trade Union, led then by the fearsome Joe Young, and later by the indomitable Albert Aberdeen, now a judge of the Industrial Court.

He stood his ground, but he accepted wholeheartedly that trade unions are a necessary, if sometimes inconvenient (to him), buffer against unfair practices in the workplace. He gained their respect for the fair manner in which he related to his workforce.

So why do trade unions suffer the reputation of being unreasonable rabble rousers, not fit to be included in boardrooms and the halls of power where, supposedly, reason is supposed to dictate the direction of society? There are two related reasons for this, I think. The first is that the natural expression of ultimate trade union power, the strike, must necessarily cause disruption to services, financial loss to the employer targeted, and inconvenience to the general public. 

No matter that strike action, when lawfully taken, is just that, sanctioned by law. No matter that the strike weapon is probably the only true counterpart to the enormously disproportionate power which employers wield against their employees. The fact that harm is caused to innocent bystanders is enough to condemn even lawful industrial action as being illegitimate.

The other reason is that the language of trade union activism is the language of protest. Trade unionists are constantly against something, or threatening something, or complaining about something. But what else can we expect from those who must confront the powerful—from the protesters in Hong Kong agitating for the maintenance of their democratic rights, to the rioters in Ferguson, St Louis, venting their anger at another unredressed police killing of an unnarmed black man, to the almost routine burning of tyres and road blockades in T&T to direct attention to a festering problem, to the brave even if futile hunger strike by the gallant Wayne Kublalsingh.

By contrast, those employers who exploit their employees or take unreasonable positions in wage negotiations are seldom seen as a bane of society or as a threat to industrial peace. Even when employers initiate industrial action by locking out their workers it is assumed that they have some good reason for doing so, even though just as much inconvenience is caused to members of the wider community and the locked-out workers are deprived of their means of survival. 

It is taken for granted that the trade union must be unreasonably rejecting the employer’s offer. This disparity in attitudes is derived in part from the fact that the power which employers exercise over their workers is the product of the way the economic and legal system operates. An employer’s right to exclude anyone from entry to his premises is an incident of the constitutionally protected right to property. It is the employer’s investment in the enterprise which provides the employment which workers need to eke out a living. So when an employer does not agree to a union’s wage proposals, he simply has to say no. It is the union which must now agitate for better conditions. 

The employer’s is the silent exercise of power and it is never couched in the language of protest. It is power which is justified ultimately by reference to the profit margin and consequent economic growth. It therefore takes on the veneer of the ordinary and the legitimate, like the air we breathe.The disparity in attitudes is reflected in the language used to describe the activities of unions and employers.

So we commonly say that unions ‘demand’ wage increases, but employers just ‘make offers’ to their employees. Workers refuse to work, but employers shut their factory gates or downsize or some such euphemism. Trade unionists are militant agitators, employers are aggressive risk takers. Trade unions pursue the narrow interest of their members, while  
employers serve the national interest. 
The job of the trade unionist is a thankless one. But, as they say, the struggle continues. 


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