While the rest of the world dealt with real problems to include the perennial troubles in the global economy, an oil spill which, when it finally gets cleaned up will make the Exxon Valdez seem like a walk in the park, we here in Antigua & Barbuda observed another Labour Day celebration.
Decked in red or blue, the respective leaders in the trade union movement said the same things they said last year and the year before and the year before that.
Like the previous years, too, the political leaders of both major parties were in evidence, and the fledgling Trade Union Congress tried to convince itself that in this society Labour Day is about workers and not a show of political strength or who can afford to pay for Jamaican entertainment.
There was a slight monkey wrench, which changed the scenario somewhat, for almost on the eve of Labour Day, the former general secretary of the AT&LU, Stafford Joseph, announced he was forming a new trade union which would have no affiliation to a political party.
The maverick notion did not sit well with some, for no sooner had he said this, the head of the trade union congress all but said what many had been thinking, this was a pipe dream. He has since distanced himself from the thought and sought to explain not what he said, but what he meant.
On Labour Day, no less a person than the Opposition Leader, Lester Bird, said the same thing in other words; party and union are one and the same.
We are aware that both leaders must know the history of trade unionism; that it was born out of issues such as the need for collective bargaining and industrial action. It cannot be that history has been turned on its head in a few short years and that the struggles of the Thirty-niners for the benefits that workers enjoy today have been lost in the sea of forgetfulness.
What then is the issue at hand? Both leaders, perhaps without recognising it, have brought to the fore the question, which some have mooted in recent years; what is the relevance of the trade union movement today?
While trade unions have ceased being as aggressive as they were in the past, some of them still manage to carry out their mandate today. For instance, during collective bargaining, some are quite useful to respective employees because they act as a go-between for the employee and the employer.
Trade unions are supposed to protect workers rights while at the same time act as a conduit for workers’ grievances. If unions are not in place employers either treat workers in a dictatorial manner or they become paternalistic. Trade unions are supposed to create a go-between these two extremes.
Although he may be surprised to hear this, the relevance, or lack thereof, of trade unionism was observed by Joseph when he admitted that some 50 per cent of the workforce have chosen not to be represented by any union. His cure for this disinterest is to start an organisation with no political ties.
His antidote may not be quite that simple, and may, in fact, be quite complex and multidimensional. The nature of the workplace has changed considerably over the years. Governments have by and large implemented laws which address health and safety issues. The Labour Code speaks to benefits to which workers are entitled. Thus, much of what workers looked to from trade unions are already spelt out in law.
Additionally, employees are more informed of their rights. They know their obligations and what their employers are obliged to do. Perhaps this too is another reason it would appear that the need for trade unions is waning.
Additionally, many companies now employ human resource managers. This person’s job is to look after the welfare of the employees while at the same time ensuring that the employers are not shortchanged.
In this era of technology, the need for trade unions does appear to have fizzled out, as more technology-based industries arise.
Although not common here, in the region there has been a number of mergers and downsizings where many workers have lost their jobs, making the trade unions appear as if they are not doing anything to change these circumstances.
Lay-offs have become sources of quick fixes for companies that have exercised poor management policies or companies whose sales seem to be declining. If trade unions were relevant today would such be occurring?
If, as the protagonists in the Labour Day cases are claiming, members of the political party, the ALP, had a right to take over a Labour Day rally, there is no doubt, who has preeminence. What then is the relevance of the trade union movement?