Workers Unions Facing Major Challenges
The Caribbean Is One Nation.
While we did not comment on the May Day celebrations, we were not oblivious to the speeches and activities of the traditional rights of workers. Unfortunately, a perusal of the speeches made by the trade unions’ leadership have not inspired or convinced us that they are aware of the multitude of issues facing the region’s workers.
Many of the regional unions had their birth in the pre-independence era of the 60’s and they would have formed very close relationships with the major political parties. This relationship has seen many socio-economic benefits but that approach to workers’ representation, like most sectors of our national development, needs to be closely examined and modified.
The early trade unions had found their membership among agricultural workers. As they grew in strength, they were seen as the protectors of: port, oilfield, and other “blue collar” workers. These workers needed strong and articulate representation to help them navigate the rapidly evolving economic landscape and many outstanding union and political careers were carved out of this necessity.
With growing public services, the unions rapidly gained support from: public servants, teachers, police, transport workers, hotel workers the media and other sectors. As the economies moved from agricultural to industrial base, the unions’ membership blossomed to include workers in industrial parks, airports, and quasi government departments. The union enjoyed a buoyancy that could have been scarcely foreseen and suddenly its members were also drawn from “white collar” professions such as banking, communications and other fields. It is undeniable that the trade union movement contributed greatly to the post-independence period. It is also undeniable that there are presently extremely deliberate actions designed to marginalize the unions.
The current trade union movement is caught between its historical successes and an uncertain future. As our societies become more Americanized, and anti- union investors continue to invest in our economies, many unions are seeing a decline in membership. Th emergence of Social Partnerships involving governments, capital and labor, has in many cases resulted in less trade union activism. With automation and technology replacing human labor, many traditional jobs will disappear and the trade union will have to find new ways to grow membership.
The less optimistic will perhaps conclude that the economies and societies the unions built no longer welcome them. We hope that the unions do not become the collateral damage of the progress they helped to engineer for so many decades.