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INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS IS CLASS STRUGGLE By Ken Howell

posted 4 Apr 2016, 18:33 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 4 Apr 2016, 18:44 ]
To understand and appreciate industrial relations, you must have an appreciation of its history. What we know about industrial relations today is coloured by the attempts to strip it of its original role as an arena in which the struggle, which is waged on the picket line, announcing industrial action, is transferred to a place for conciliation and or decision by an Industrial Court. But that was not always the case. The real history of industrial relations is the history of the struggle between labour and capital, to determine how the proceeds of the production process are distributed.

That has been the case from the time the industrial revolution replaced European feudalism with capitalism, and in the process created the working class. From then on, where ever capitalism emerged, it was forced to create a working class. That was because in order to mass produce goods and services, there must be a labour force in sufficient numbers capable of so doing. The exception was during the colonial era, when the use of slave labour was chosen to be exploited in the process of the plunder of the colonies.

But in the capitalist countries that has been the case up until the introduction of robotics, 3D printing and nano technology into the 
production process. In addition, the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe dealt a body blow to the working class all over the world and impacted negatively on the industrial relations process. This was because it removed socialism as a reference point for the working class and the class struggle in the capitalist world. As a result the capitalist ideologues declared that they had won a political as well as a psychological victory over the working class. It was even declared that we had come to the end of history.

We must remember, however, that the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe followed on the heels of the collapse of the price of oil in the 1980s. As a consequence that led to an economic crisis which impacted negatively on many countries, leading to massive loss of jobs because of the many bankruptcies which occurred. The massive unemployment which resulted from the economic crisis presented a welcome opportunity for the employers who entered into the labour market to purchase labour power. That is because when there is massive unemployment, there is an oversupply of labour on the market and the demand for labour is weak. As a result, the strength of the trade union movement and its ability to negotiate from a position of strength is diminished.

It is in such circumstances that the capitalists seize the opportunity to go on the offensive, in a one-on-one against the worker, as an individual, because the support of the combined strength of the group is not available at the negotiation table. If we remind ourselves, however, about the last oil crisis and how the labour movement responded when it came under attack, we will recall that despite the existence of two federations and the antagonisms which resulted from ideological differences, at that time, they were able to sink their differences in the interest of unity in the struggle against the common enemy.

While the united response of the movement repelled the attack on the workers; following the return to government by the PNM in 1991, the movement relaxed, apparently in the belief that its position of strength in the labour market was secured.

What emerged in the employers’ camp, however, was the introduction of new thinking and strategies, through which to undermine the strength of the working class. These were concepts such as Promalco, which was marketed as a new approach to labour capital relations.

This was touted as cooperation between trade unions and employers, with the blessings of the government. But when that concept is placed under the microscope, it really means that trade unions are required to abdicate their responsibility to represent the class interest of their members in favour of those of the employer class. What we must understand, is that these attempts to divert the attention of the movement and its leaders away from their legitimate responsibilities, stem from an appreciation of the absence of a strong ideological grounding of some of the leaders who are in the leadership of some of the leading trade unions.

It was as a consequence of the absence of such quality leadership that Dr. Eric Williams was able to undermine and divide the movement in the 1960s and 70s. And it was because of such the PP also succeeded and the PNM seem to be also on the road to success, with the strong incentive of $15 million dollars, which it dangled before the movement purportedly for institutional strengthening which is another word for “sell out” of the workers.

The movement failed to place emphasis on the education and training of second rank leaders in the art of working class struggle and 
passed that responsibility to the Cipriani College of Labour. The movement is currently at a place where the opportunism of some of its leaders places in doubt the ability of the movement to recover from the pro-employer anti-worker positions into which some of the leaders have clearly fallen, but refuse to admit that this is so.

How then can they explain the epidemic of contract labour infesting the labour market - an epidemic which the movement failed or refused to address when that is the reality in the public sector, the health service as well as in the energy sector? Because of the emergence of this situation, the opportunity was seized by the drafters of labour legislation to attempt to introduce as an amendment to the Industrial Relations Act (IRA), a section dealing with “the basic conditions of work” which was intended to treat with workers in a non-union environment.

What was also attempted was the introduction of legislation, which would open the industrial relations arena, as well as the labour market, to the active participation of lawyers in the representation of individual workers because of the wide spread existence of contract labour.

When this issue first reared its head in the 1990s, leaders of the movement opposed it. But once again the issue is being raised by none other than the former Minister of Energy who proposes something similar to that of the drafter of those pieces of laws mentioned earlier. Under the current set of labour laws, which incidentally, were preceded by the approval of Conventions of the I.L.O., to which this country is a signatory and as a result the right of workers to form and join trade unions and to be free to bargain from a position of equal strength, with their employers who are forced to recognise the strength of the workers as a group and not as individuals. Although I must concede, that the IRA is a strange creature which purports to be protective of the rights of workers, while it provides mechanisms for the violation of those rights.

So any attempt by mercenaries now entering the industrial relations arena and attempting to use the existence of contract labour as an opening (which is made possible because of the negligence of the leaders of the movement who failed to plug that opening in their flank) must be exposed. Because the IRA also makes provision at section (51) “Dispute Procedures,” for workers who are employed in establishments where there is no union to be represented by a union even if that union does not have bargaining status.

So this question of the worker taking his/her matter through to conciliation and on to the Industrial Court is a non-starter. What is 
being attempted once again is the substitution of the current industrial relation processes for that of the common law variety which fits in quite nicely with fixed term contracts, which are being used quite frequently in the employment of workers.

This state of affairs represents the soft under belly of the trade union movement, but the leaders do not seem to recognise this. That is why the issue is being placed on the front burner once again. It would not surprise me if it is placed on the agenda for discussion in these tripartite discussions. The failure of the movement to nip contract labour in the bud before it became an epidemic, placed the employer class in a strong negotiating position from which it could be difficult but not impossible to remove them.

Labour leaders must retreat for a moment from the precipitous position in which they are about to place the whole of the working class movement, in order to regroup and discuss not only with the second rank leaders, but with the respective branches, to form a much deeper connection with workers on the shop floor on issues such as contract labour, recognition rights, open recruiting of workers by invoking section (42) of the IRA which deals with victimization; issues dealing with health and safety; pensions and pension funds and the filling of vacancies in the public and state sectors.

If such an approach is adopted it will achieve two things. Firstly, it will put the leaders in a position to be able to measure the strength and weakness of the movement, by providing a snap shot of how prepared it is if it is confronted with a situation in which it is required to fight for its survival.

Secondly, it will cause them to see the extent to which branches are disorganised and as a result the extent of the damage which was done by failing to have well organised branch committees and branches in recognised bargaining units. Clearly, where such structures are absent decisions in accordance with the constitution and rules of the respective unions cannot be properly taken. There may be exceptions such as in the formative stages of a union. But not where a union is well established.

You see, the strength of the union lies in the democracy which emphasises openness, transparency, honesty and the strict adherence to the Constitution and Rules of the respective unions. Therefore, it is only after all the necessary preparation is made and the readiness of the movement is confirmed that the movement should enter any room, hotel or apartment to meet and treat with the other side. It must be remembered that industrial relations by any other name is still about the struggle of the classes and about how the economic pie is sliced. It also determines who is holding the knife to slice the pie.

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