The central task facing the Trade Union movement at this time is to build unity and solidarity among the members at the branch and section levels in the respective unions and at the national level. This is not an easy task. But the current internal and external conditions dictate that this task must be treated with great urgency.
I say this because, all the signs on the international economic and political landscape point to the fact that the right wing governments in Spain, Greece, Italy and England are bent on introducing legislative measures designed to break the power of the trade union movement. The trade unions are fighting back, by putting millions of workers on the streets in defence of the gains which they were able to achieve for their members and the right of unions to organise and bargain freely..
There is a saying “When your neighbour's house is on fire you must wet yours.” We live in a global village so it would not be unreasonable to conclude that our government may be planning to introduce anti-union measures to break the unions who represent workers in strategic areas of the economy.
We must not forget that while it appears that the government is running the affairs of the country, the truth is that it is really big local and foreign capital, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank who are in charge. They are the ones behind the scenes directing the show. They are the ones who will ensure that their right wing reactionary policies are implemented by this anti-worker government. Therefore the movement must ensure that its forces are fit and ready to fight and beat back any attack on the quality of life of its members.
In order to carry out this task successfully, the Joint Trade Union leaders must cause their respective unions to embark on a massive education programme to train the leaders at branch and section level with a view to improve the quality of representation. Such a programme must include; how to handle grievances from the shop floor to the court and how to deal with health and safety issues.
An extensive training programme on the history of the trade union movement locally and internationally is also a necessary requirement especially in the context of unity and solidarity. It must be understood that worker education and training is an ongoing exercise. That is the life blood of the movement. Without it the movement will die. That is to say, it may continue to have members to represent but the quality of the leadership and representation will deteriorate. In fact we are currently experiencing this in some unions.
One of the reasons for this development is the diminished level of union activity at the branch level. There was a time when branch officers were responsible for collecting union contributions from members at the branch meetings. At that time, the members would receive reports concerning matters that the leadership at the national and branch level were dealing with.
But since the check-off system was introduced and the standard of living of members in some industries improved, there is no longer that type of interaction among members. As a result complacency at branch and national levels has led to a lowering of the quality of representation which the members receive. As a consequence, leaders who are interested in personal advancement will thrive in such an environment.
Currently there is talk of forming a workers’ party. That is something which I agree must be placed on the list of priorities of the trade union movement. But should it be number one on the list? The answer is no! A workers’ party must be supported by a strong united workers’ movement supported by farmers and community organisations. The task of building a workers’ party is time consuming and requires patience and understanding. It is not something you build for the immediate purpose of fighting the next election.
It is work that you do while building strong unions through the education programmes, by improving the quality of representation of the members, training new leadership, by improving the quality of democracy in the respective unions and the quality of the work you do in the communities where union members live. That is how the new workers’ party must be built. If it is to succeed there is no other way.
Trade union leaders must not take the workers for granted. They must not believe that the workers will fall for the trick of some union leaders coming together and forming a party whose policy and programme we know nothing about and they the workers and other union leaders will come just so and join that party? No!
We must get our priorities right. We must do the hard work. Build from the ground up! Practice democracy from the beginning. There is no other way. BUILD STRONG UNIONS TO BUILD A STRONG WORKERS’ PARTY!