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!