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CABRERA: TRADE UNIONS AND THE FUTURE OF WORK

posted 27 Mar 2019, 06:52 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 27 Mar 2019, 07:23 ]
Vincent Cabrera, President of the Banking Insurance and General Workers Union (BIGWU) deliverd the following 
address on the occasion of the presentation of certificates to participants of BIGWU's education programme at Kapok Hotel 23rd March 2019.

Comrade Chair and Deputy General Secretary, members of the Central Executive, invited guests and participants in BIGWU’s Education Programme, let me add my words of welcome. Today we will award Certificates of Participation for comrades who have participated in our education programme for 2017 and 2018; a programme which has been a regular part of our annual list of events since the inception of this trade union.

I have been asked to address you without any specifications as to what I should speak about. Since I have been given this wide berth, I have chosen to focus on the future of the trade union movement but will also mention some matters which I think warrants some measure of treatment.

Firstly, let me congratulate the Union for continuing with the example set by the Union’s founders who from day one had always placed an emphasis on building the consciousness of our members. Allow me to congratulate Cde. Alva Allen our Education and Research Officer who has excelled at leading the education effort in BIGWU. But most of all I want to extend my personal congratulations to you the forty participants who have been awarded well deserved Certificates of Participation in relation to the 2017 and 2018 programme.

Comrade Chairman, comrades all, many organisations worldwide have been engaged in discussions concerning the future of work. UNI our Global Trade Union Centre and the International Labour Organisation are among those which readily come to mind. In fact the ILO recently held a forum, here in Trinidad titled “The Future of Work We Want”. Nevertheless whether we speak to the future of work or to the future of work we want, my criticism of the discussions held so far, is that they seem to have omitted a discussion on the future of the trade union movement itself.

Work existed before trade unions. In fact work and the employment relationship existed for a very long time in one form or another before workers began responding by forming themselves into worker’s organisations. In Trinidad, and throughout the Caribbean, colonialism organised the brutal genocide of the indigenous people, and transported people from many destinations but most importantly from Africa and India, to participate in the plantation system. In those days, slaves, indentured labourers and a sprinkling of free men performed work in the colonies, for the exclusive benefit of European contries and the European bourgeoisie.

Emancipation and the end of Indian Indentureship provided the major building blocks for the Caribbean working class. Alfred Richards, Elma Francois, Arthur Cipriani, Uriah Butler and Cola Rienzi provided the leadership for the early working class organisations and I encourage our participants to research the contribution of these comrades in a deep and fundamental way. Too often workers in the contemporary period possess only a superficial understanding of this important period in the development of the trade union movement.

I challenge you also to research the contributions made by George Weekes, Joseph Young, Nathaniel Chrichlow and of course Basdeo Panday in the development of the trade unions which many workers take for granted today.

Comrades, the future of work lies in the present. Any analysis of the future of work will inevitably have to take into consideration, the
BIGWU General Secretary, Trevor Johnson presents a token to Industrial Court Judge Gregory Rousseau
future of neo-liberalism, climate change, robotics, artificial intelligence and the rise of right wing ideology. There are those who question whether trade unions will survive. And if we survive, in what forms will the functions and operations of trade unions change to suit the times.

There is evidence that since the 1980’s trade unions have been on a decline. Yes, trade unions are under siege; the future is uncertain and it is uncertain whether trade unions have a future. Do we still hold the capacity to shape our future? It is evident that the effects of neo-liberalism is the real cause for much of the decline that trade unions have experienced. I wish to state categorically that trade unions are not to blame for the decline of trade unionism but if we do no respond locally, regionally and internationally to this state of affairs, history will blame us for our demise. Let me be clear. No one will save trade unions from eventual obliteration. It is only the trade unions themselves that can save the trade unions and ensure their survival.

In our local distribution, unions have experienced a dwindling of their membership primarily because of retrenchments occasioned by both restructuring and company closure. TIWU lost over a thousand members when the vehicle assembly plants were closed. The SWWTU lost thousands of members when the Port was restructured. ATGWTU lost nine thousand members when Caroni (1979) was closed. SWUTT lost nearly their entire membership when Arcelor-Mittal closed the plant and departed our shores without paying any severance pay whatsoever to the retrenched workers. CWU lost all of its members who were employed with TIDCO when the enterprise was closed down in defiance of established labour legislation. Most recently OWTU suffered the loss of almost half its membership when over five thousand workers were retrenched with the closure of Petrotrin.

The CWU again suffered a loss of a major chunk of its membership when TSTT began to outsource work to AMPLIA. Unions have not been able to replace their lost membership. While some trade unions have been able to recruit new members in new establishments, the level of recruitment has been far outstripped by the numbers lost through round after round of retrenchment.

A disturbing feature of the present industrial relations landscape is the practice of employers with deep pockets placing legal challenges in the path of trade unions. Judgments of the Industrial Court and decisions of the Registration, Recognition and Certification Board have been increasingly subjected to High Court reversals in the interest of employers.

In addition, Certificates of Recognition issued br the RRCB are being challenged at High Court level. The main example is the decision of the High Court to quash the Certificate of Recognition issued to BIGWU in relation to the Royal Bank of Canada. This notoriously anti-union employer successfully argued that the union had not followed the requirements of the law in seeking recognition status.

The fact that the Union had been granted more than 60 certificates prior to the RBC certificate based on the same method of organisation and the same accounting procedures was completely ignored by the High Court. The fact that even after the RBC matter BIGWU has continued to be certified on this exact procedure may also be similarly lost on the High Court whose composition is unlike that of the Industrial Court where there exists competent industrial relations expertise.

Kochan says that we cannot look into the future without calculating the trajectory of the past and the present. In this connection, we must take note that collectivism as a societal value has been watered down by increasingly dominant free market oriented values. Trade unions have become defenders of particular vested interests with many no longer maintaining any essential links with the broader community. Few parliaments are willing to uphold progressive labour legislation. In numerous jurisdictions many items of labour legislation do not meet the requirements of international labour standards.

Globalisation and neo-liberalism have seriously compromised the stability of national industrial relations systems founded on the tripartite principle. Hyman says that in part this involves the intensification of cross-national competition. The internationalization of production chains within multi-national companies detached from the regulatory framework of national industrial relations systems are increasingly assertive in redefining industrial relations. The visible hand of the multi-national companies interacts with the increasingly coercive and invisible hand of finance-capital and currency markets.

The internal challenges to trade unionism stem from transformation in the union’s own constituencies; the changing world of work and, as part of this, the erosion of the employment relationship of the past. The world of work now manifestly has two genders, is occupationally and ethnically diverse, and involves highly differentiated patterns of activity. Class boundaries have become more diffused and there seems less willingness than in the past to submerge particular interests within a more broadly defined class identity.

With the increase in atypical forms of work and with the normalization of some forms of atypical work, trade unions must become more concerned about a strategy for survival rather than a constant emphasis on immediate economic relations with employers.

Trade unions must extend their boundaries of operation. Unions need to sharpen their operations as a sword of justice defending the weak and disadvantaged. There will be an ideological onslaught presenting unions as being partly responsible for economic adversity.

Unions must aim to operate in the future with an increase in membership, power and influence. However, many of us will have to learn to wield power and influence without the traditional large membership base to which we have become accustomed and in some cases a bit too comfortable. It is imperative that trade unions adopt the Organising Model. This organising model cannot be a rehash of the traditional model but one which has new features to serve the interests of the working class which operates in a very new environment and in a very new context.

Trade unions need to strategically plan to decide exactly who they will be representing. We will need to determine exactly what issues around which organising campaigns will be focused and most importantly how we will ensure survival in the first instance and how we will grow in numbers and strength in the 21st Century.

Neo-liberalism, globalization, weak labour legislation, restructuring and retrenchment, the atypification of the workforce and the loss of traditional trade union values are factors which have contributed and will continue to contribute to the decline of trade unions. It is how we manage the impact of these issues on the trade unions that really matters.

The future of work we want cannot be assured if the trade union movement itself does not take steps to fully understand and respond
BIGWU Education and Research Officer, Alva Allen
to the dilemma in which trade union are presently situated. The future of work we want will continue to fall short of the standard established by the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda and Programme unless the trade union movement itself addresses the future of the trade union movement.

Unions must take immediate steps to promote the broadening of the coverage of trade unions within the society. Our Agenda can no longer be limited to adjusting the workers’ status as an employee, but must include: addressing other facets of personal and social existence, the environment, the sphere of consumption, the institutions and facilities of the local community. The trade unions of the 21st Century inevitably would have to be an identifiable part of a broader social movement and therefore the trade unions will have to begin to operate in new ways.

I have seen many reports where corporate bodies and legislators characterize trade unions and industrial relations as political problems. Of course I do not agree that we are a problem because we are part of the solution but it is ironic that so many workers still believe that political activity must be conducted only by political parties. Let me make this pellucidly clear. Trade unions have no choice but to take up popular political issues otherwise they would lose all relevance and be consigned to the garbage bin of history. We cannot continue to leave political issues for treatment only by the traditional political parties and the Chambers of Commerce. Appropriate political interventions can win the trade unions new friends and allies and remember that we have no permanent friends; remember that we have no permanent enemies; but we do have permanent class interests and we must defend those interests because no one else would.

Comrades, the discussion as to how we ensure our survival have only just begun. Of one thing we are certain. If we are to ensure our future our members have to be much more than merely a dues paying member. The payment of dues is where an individual begins in the trade union. Sadly it is where so many of us remain for our entire lives as trade union members.

Our education programme is one attempt to ensure that our members realise that paying dues is just the beginning; it cannot be the end! Comrades we have no need for members who are not conscious of themselves as members of the working class; we have no need for members who have no concern beyond the next wage or salary increase. For us to survive, we have to make a qualitative jump. We have to engage in a rethinking our strategy; we have to adopt a progressive world view otherwise attorneys will end up as trade union representatives because trade unionism will be reduced merely to industrial relations representation. To ensure our survival we have to move beyond our comfort zone where we confront a problem with a picket or a demonstration and then go home to watch TV.

And so the review of our Strategic Plan must be looked upon as a strategy for survival. BIGWU must not assume that simply because we operate in the service sector that we are immune from mass retrenchment. Look at what has taken place at CLICO and Clico Investment Bank. Here today and gone tomorrow. There are computer applications which are being used to grant loans and other forms of credit to applicants. There are computer applications that allow an individual to apply for a mortgage or to seek insurance without interfacing with a live body. Please remember that there is no institutional policy which regulates the introduction of new cutting edge technology. The world of finance-capital is full of examples of mergers, hostile takeovers and the like. Labour is shed without the shedding of any tears.

As I conclude I wish to make one final point. We cannot hope to competently defend the interests of working people if we fail to read; if we fail to gather the relevant knowledge. We need to examine the extent to which BIGWU possesses or has access to specialist expertise in research, education, information gathering and the means to disseminate knowledge throughout the organisation. Knowledge must be seen as an essential component of union power.

Comrades, this trade union must devise a methodology whereby dues paying members can be transformed into full-fledged, conscious, progressive and disciplined trade union activists. What is needed in a phrase is large and adequate investments in our future! If we fail in this task, organised labour will become an anachronism as dated as the dungeon-like workplaces of the Industrial Revolution in whose crucible the working class was moulded.

Finally I again congratulate all recipients of certificates. Let this be only the beginning of your journey into the future, a future which will and must contribute to the survival of the trade union movement. I thank you all.
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