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posted 23 Feb 2021, 21:24 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 23 Feb 2021, 21:25 ]
The following presentation  by Dave Smith, President of the National Workers Union (NWU), was made at the opening session of  a training programme organised by the Transport and Industrial Workers Union (TIWU) at Cipriani Labour College on Monday February 22nd 2021.

It would be tempting to simply emphasise the importance of training - and of course that would be true. However, it is also important to put into context the significance of training in the development of any trade union. Trade unions are the most important organisations for workers. They represent not only the ability of workers to defend their interests but equally as important, enable unions, through collective bargaining, to try and improve their standard of living and extract from the employing class an improved share of the wealth created by labour.

The modern trade union movement in Trinidad and Tobago can trace its roots back to the labour uprisings of 1937. But as Karl Marx pointed in some of his early writings in 1848: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. Taking this longer-term historical view it helps is to know where we’ve come from and where we should be going. For instance, we can recognise the importance of the strike of the waterfront workers in 1919 and some early efforts of workers to organise after the abolition of slavery in 1838. We can take an even longer perspective and history has given us evidence of attempts to form some of the earliest trade unions in Britain in the 1820s as workers responded to the exploitation of capitalism as a result of the Industrial Revolution in the 1750’s.

The development of trade unions has never taken a straight path. The ebbs and flows of the strength of trade unions reflects the struggle between the interests of labour and those of capital. Let us be under no illusion that what we are talking about here is power. Who has the power and what gives them that power. There are some, particularly amongst the representatives and spokespersons of the employing class, who point to the decline in trade union membership and influence over the past period and are eager to relegate trade unions to the dustbin of history.

Those who peddle this view have little understanding of the nature and dynamic of the class struggle in a capitalist society. The reality is that trade unions are a product of the political and economic environment within which they exist. As an economy changes its structure, so areas where unions have historically been strong decline and new areas that need to be organised open up. The closure of Caroni (1975) cost 9000 trade union jobs, the closure of Petrotrin another 5000 jobs and comrades in TIWU may recall the closure of a car assembly plant that was one of TIWU’s bargaining units.

Each of these closures would have had a knock on effect in the rest of the economy with a consequential impact on jobs. In the current climate of the Covid Pandemic, we cannot ignore the blatant aggression of some employers taking full advantage of the situation in cutting wages and hours and embarking on major restructuring exercises. For some employers, it’s as if all labour laws have evaporated overnight!

But an example of how the trade union movement adapts to changes in the economy, even though slowly, can be seen in the growth of the Banking Insurance and General Workers Union who have established solid roots amongst workers in the finance and service sector. Those who want to diminish the role and influence of trade unions are keen to amend the Industrial Relations Act so that it would no longer be necessary for most trade disputes to find a way into the Industrial Court through a trade union reporting matters to the Minister of Labour.

Those who take this position want to open up the door for lawyers and consultants who represent employers today and pretend to represent the interests of workers tomorrow. The fact that access to the Minister of Labour on most matters is through a trade union is a reflection of the strength and influence of the trade union movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s which had to be recognised in drafting the Industrial Relations Act. The importance of this should not be underestimated.

Once the Industrial Court was established by the 1965 Industrial Stabilisation Act, the inevitable reality is that all unsettled trade disputes, whether individual or collective, will end up in the Industrial Court. This means that trade unions have an absolutely vital role in contributing to the jurisprudence that is developed in the Industrial Court. If this is handed over to lawyers and consultants who flip flop from one side to the other without a trade union or class perspective, then we can see precedents being developed in the Court which would not be in the interest of workers. The growth and use of consultants, and particularly attorneys, in the Industrial Court has the risk of increased legalisation of the industrial relations process. Part of our job is to reinforce a basic common sense approach to industrial relations.

Lawyers talk in a language. Instead of saying “this is an old matter” - they say “this is a matter of some vintage”. Instead of telling a judge - “I’m sorry I can’t do that date as I have another commitment on that day” they say “I would be embarrassed on that day”. We have to be careful not to fall into the danger of using their language. When a trade union representative is in Court, we should not be using lawyers' language by referring to the other side as “My friend”. They are no friends of ours, they are representing the interests of the employer!