Where we stand - old


posted 27 Sept 2009, 14:30 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 4 Oct 2009, 19:36 by Unknown user ]

Comrades, the working class in Trinidad and Tobago is under the most sustained attack from the employers and the state since the early 1980’s. Some may remember: at that time, with the oil boom running cold, the then boss of the Employers’ Consultative Association, Emile De La Grenade, stated that there were no safe havens for workers. The battle field, he said, was everywhere.

This ushered in a decade of intense class struggle characterised by massive strikes, lock outs and occupations throughout the country, but especially in the East-West Corridor. Major job losses took place at MTS, PTSC, Caroni, throughout the light manufacturing sector and in the energy and heavy manufacturing sectors. Public sector workers felt the full force of government cutbacks in their wage packets.

These massive social conflicts led to the defeat of the PNM in the 1986 general elections, the splintering of the NAR government, the imposition of the neo-liberal structural adjustment programme of the International Monetary Fund, the staging of the glorious general strike of 1989 (Day of Resistance), the formation of the Summit of People’s Organisation (SOPO) and the Muslimeen military adventure.

The exhausted working class, suffering from structural adjustment fatigue, went into retreat and the neo-liberal agenda reigned supreme. The trade union movement reflected that retreat and the quality of our representation and leadership went into decline. Our membership decreased and for the first time since the 1930’s the trade union movement ceased to be a significant player in shaping the political contours of the society.

Comrades, we are facing a situation today that could mean either the revitalisation of the working class movement and the trade unions or the imposition of a regime of repression upon working people and the utter marginalisation of the trade union movement.

The neo-liberal project has collapsed in the face of the accelerating crisis of international capitalism. It is not just a financial crisis. It is a crisis of the capitalist mode of production which is based on profit maximisation, concentration and accumulation of capital at the expense of everything else, including the destruction of the human ecosystem. The continued existence of the capitalist system is a danger to the continued existence of the human race.

The political system and the institutions of social control have lost credibility among the masses and we are once again heading for a decisive clash of social forces which may decide what kind of social settlement will emerge or be imposed.

The masses have lost faith in the ability of the capitalist economy to satisfy their aspirations. They are restless and everywhere you look you see a low intensity insurrection already underway as working people and the poor try to defend themselves against the deterioration of living conditions which are becoming worse as thousands of workers are retrenched.

The manufacturing sector that exports to Caricom is already shedding jobs because their markets are drying up.  Jobs are already being eliminated in the energy and heavy industrial sectors. Workers are on the chopping block in the public service, at WASA, throughout the manufacturing sector, the construction sector, the transport, equipment rental, engineering, labour supply sectors and the supply of services sector: restaurant, retail and wholesale commercial sales, financial and clerical sectors.

The state has already signalled that it is quite prepared to resort to naked militarisation to ensure that working people and the poor do not create more space for themselves. The recent Summit of the Americas revealed the extent of the militarisation of the police force and recent events involving TSTT workers, members of the Communications Workers’ Union, suggest that the state is eager to inflict violence upon the masses.

When people refuse to collaborate in their own exploitation; when the institutions of social control neither command respect nor intimidate the masses; when the system is stripped to its bare essentials it goes back to basics: the heart of state power is the ability to enforce policy through armed force!
CLR James advised us to seek the future in the present and what we see is certainly not pleasant. We see more than two dozen workers dismissed at WASA. The Chairman of WASA, who is well known to many unions in the country, is reported to have said the government has “deep pockets”.
This means that the government has decided to break the trade union movement by dismissing officers and activists whether the dismissals hold up in court or not. TSTT has made it quite clear that they have adopted the “WASA model” as the President of the Transport and Industrial Workers’ Union, Comrade Roland Sutherland,
Senior police officers move to shut down protest at the famous Drummit to the Summit event at St. James last April.
so aptly described it.

The foreign manager of TSTT has been clear about two things. He said that workers would be dismissed and he has since suspended scores of workers under conditions which the Communications Workers’ Union has described as constructive dismissal.

He also described the relationship between the union and TSTT as having nothing to do with industrial relations but was in fact a “power struggle”. What this signifies is that if the trade union movement wants to mount an industrial relations response to this vicious all-out assault on the rights, benefits, entitlements and, more importantly, freedoms of workers, the state and the capitalists are certainly not going down that road.

They understand clearly that the industrial relations arena is no longer capable of containing the class struggle. They are upping the ante and are quite prepared to wage an economic, political and military struggle against the working class and the trade union movement in order to secure their class interests which depend on the continuing exploitation of labour and the suppression of the political rights of working people and the poor.

Comrades, we fully support the position of the Transport and industrial Workers’ Union when it stated in a recent media release: “The trade union movement must unite solidly behind the CWU and the TSTT workers as they exercise their right to protest against oppression. If we do not, our ability to engage in collective bargaining and our right to assembly and to free speech will be eroded and eventually removed as the state militarises the society in an effort to shore up a crumbling economic and political situation.”

The National Workers Union suggests that as the first step to uniting solidly behind the CWU and the TSTT workers, all trade unions in the country, whether affiliated to NATUC, FITUN or non-affiliated agree to convoke a national Convention of Shop Stewards and Branch Officers (COSSABO) so that the widest cross section of the “shop floor” leadership of the trade union movement could bring their collective experience, wisdom and energy to bear on the immediate question of defence of TSTT workers and their union. 

The COSSABO should also tackle the broader question of developing a fight back programme to beat off the assault which we all know is already underway and which is going to intensify as the crisis deepens and the government squanders its financial and political capital.

Comrades, let us be clear: “industrial relations” alone is no longer going to cut it. We are once more engaged in an all-consuming social struggle for the defence and protection of the hard-won space that the working class enjoys today. As trade unionists we have to revert to first principles.

The basis of trade unionism is collective action and solidarity. These are the weapons we must deploy in defence of the TSTT workers and the Communications Workers’ Union. Without employing these weapons we are nothing but watchmen for the employers and the state, warning them when the workers get restless and pacifying the workers instead of organising them for struggle. An injury to one is an injury to all. Trade union leaders who no longer uphold these first principles will surely become casualties as our members battle to survive in the face of this renewed assault by the capitalists and the state. One Movement! One Struggle!

Workers Must Take Control of Their Unions!

posted 31 Aug 2009, 18:52 by Dave Smith   [ updated 25 Jul 2011, 18:56 by Gerry Kangalee ]

The Labour Movement is in a horrible mess. Most of the trade union leaders, not all, are unable to mobilise their members, are unable to convince them about most things, are unable to organise anything useful and have lost the respect of their members, of the employers, of the Government and of the broad masses of working people. In sum, the leadership of the labour movement has lost credibility. 

This cannot be denied. Any move toward “labour unity” should be applauded, but one labour platform in Fyzabad, one labour federation, even, does not change the price of bread.

Most of the trade union leaderships, what Comrade Frank Sears calls “the ordained royalty of the proletariat”, have abandoned the first principles of the labour movement: class solidarity, mass organisation, collective action, organisational democracy and political education. 

The majority of trade union leaders, not all, use their organisations not as weapons to defend, protect and advance the interests of their members and of the broader working class, but as tools of personal aggrandisement, of personal enrichment and as mechanisms to curry favour with governments, which are fiercely opposed to the advancement of the interests of the working class.

The majority of trade union leaders do not act as tribunes of the people, as militant leaders of fighting working class organisations with a mission of empowering working people through struggle and educating workers about the necessity of getting rid of the unequal, oppressive system of capitalism/imperialism/globalisation. 

Instead, they act as watchmen, as security guards, for the employers and the State. They warn our enemies when we get restless and they collaborate with the employers to disarm and de-mobilise us. The end result is that we continue to eat the bread that the devil knead in these times of spiralling inflation and deteriorating conditions of work and of life, while the employers rake in obscene profits and the State loots and plunders our patrimony and buries our society in a cesspool of inequality, oppression, corruption, despair and criminal barbarism.

Most of our trade union leaderships, not all, have abdicated their responsibilities and have become junior partners of the capitalists in their futile struggle to shore up a crumbling, capitalist system that is proving itself quite incapable of supplying the needs of twenty first century humanity. An embarrassing incompetence pervades the movement. 

Their lack of capacity and inefficiency in handling the fundamental tasks of dealing with workers’ grievances and disputes have made them the darling of the employers. Education and training from the shop floor level up is no longer a priority. Many of the top leaders are afraid to have knowledgeable, informed, trained and conscious officers around them - especially on the shop floor. 

This lack of training becomes painfully apparent when workers’ issues are consistently mishandled and unions end up having to pay enormous amounts of money to lawyers for the simplest of matters. Ironically, these lawyers, themselves, have proven to be, in many cases, just as inefficient and incompetent in industrial relations.

So here we are: another June 19th in historic Fyzabad. Let us remember in these times when the latest craze is the state “partnering with unions”, that June 19th has its origins not in any alliance between the working class and the capitalist state but in the fierce struggle of West Indian workers of the 1930’s against the colonial state for democracy, workers’ rights and independence. 

While some of our leaders “partner” with the state in economic ventures it is wise to remember it is the same state against which we have to struggle to even get public sector negotiations started or dealt with in good faith. It is the same state which has established its shadowy Public Sector Negotiating Committee to frustrate and beat down workers in our struggle to protect ourselves from the inflationary pressures unleashed upon the society by the very state with which many of our leaders seek to “partner”. 

The government goes about happily frustrating negotiations at NP, MTS, NIB, Petrotrin, TSTT, the Postal Service, T&TEC, PTSC and so many others while our “leaders” actively “partner” with the government and scramble for state board appointments. What would the worker-patriots of 1937 think!

There is so much work to do, but the labour movement is unprepared, it is not armed with the necessary perspective, the overall vision, the requisite strategies, the trained human resources, to beat back the assault from the state, the big capitalists and the employers on the entitlements, rights and benefits of unionised workers. We can only move forward when we abandon the culture of authoritarianism and embrace a culture of participation and democracy for the rank and file. 

Trade union leaders seem to distrust and, indeed, fear their members. This has resulted in the centres of power in the unions being shifted away from the shop floor, from the hands of the shop stewards into the hands of bureaucrats at executive level. The demise of the COSSABO is not accidental. If the trade union movement is to fulfil its historic mission, the rank and file through their shop stewards and local officers must set the agenda and not games-playing wannabe businessmen and labour supply contractors posing as labour leaders.

The employers are institutionalising and entrenching the cancer of contract, temporary and casual labour. They are intent on eliminating permanent employment hence the rash of restructurings taking place. They want to make life untenable for unionised workers, drive down the price of our labour power in the face of the ever rising cost of living and in particular the cost of food. They want to wipe out as far as possible conditions that contribute towards decent work. In the upcoming period, negotiations are going to result in fiercer and fiercer battles. While they constantly beat into our heads that the era of cheap food is over, we must say loud and clear if there is no cheap food, there can be no cheap labour.

Our centre-soft labour leaderships have no clue that the key strategic task is to organise the hundreds of thousands of unorganised workers in the service industries, the tens of thousands of construction workers, the scores of thousands of contractor workers. They do not even see the necessity of organising the thousands of so-called temporary and casual workers who are part and parcel of the workforce throughout the manufacturing sector. They seem quite content to have only 20% of the labour force organised into unions. This way, they can sound militant, but pose no threat to their government sponsors.

They do not understand that organising the unorganised is the only way to eliminate the division within the workplace between permanent, casual, temporary and contract workers. The only way to maintain a living wage is to ensure that there are no second class workers. The only way to achieve this is to unionise the non-unionised.

There are many other issues that we have to confront or be forced to cede ground to the employers and the state. There is the protection of our pensions from the grasp of greedy, thieving politicians and capitalists. There are a host of repressive labour laws that need amendment and/or repeal. There is the need to get away from the minimum wage and establish a living wage. 

There is the question of struggling for equality, for decent work and for job security. There is the question of day care centres to be funded by the employers. There is the issue of reforming the process of union recognition which is a veritable disgrace. There is the need to make the OSH Act a living reality as our conditions of work deteriorate and more and more workers end up in harm’s way.

There are many more serious issues, but most importantly, there is the question of reversing the nasty and brutish conditions of life which the ever-deepening capitalist crisis has inflicted upon working people and the poor. We are not responsible for the crisis and we refuse to pay for it as we were made to do in the eighties and nineties. In the short term, this involves solving the problem of food security and reversing policies which are tightening the noose of inflation around our collective necks. 

In the long term, it involves turning the capitalist system on its head and creating space for the advancement of the working class as US imperialism stumbles to its grave. We must understand that the international alignment of forces is undergoing fundamental shifts and that the opportunity exists to influence the shape of the world that is coming into being. If we do not fully engage in the struggle to develop a new non-capitalist world civilisation, then we have no one but ourselves to blame if we are lost in the rubble.

But none of this is possible, if the members of the trade unions do not take control of the unions and carry out a thorough democratisation of trade union organisation from the shop floor to the leadership level. The present leaderships of the labour federations are quite incapable of leading such a campaign. 

They must be forced to move in a direction that serves the interest of the workers and not their own personal and partisan interests. A shop steward movement, cutting across union lines must be built, where debate on policy direction can take place in a democratic manner. This can be the foundation for the revitalisation of the COSSABO which proved so successful in the seventies and eighties in mobilising the working class to defend its hard-won benefits. Great struggles lie ahead. We must be ready for battle. Let us mobilise working people and the poor for the only thing our enemies understand: mass resistance and general strike!





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