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THEM VS US
Looking at the trade union movement as it exists in T&T today, one gets the sense that unions are fighting ideological battles rather than practical ones.
Let me state categorically, that mobilised unions representing workers rights is, in fact, a good thing, and the trade union movement collectively has done much for empowering workers and improving the conditions under which they work in this country.
But even a good thing can be taken too far.
To begin with, T&T has entered a “new normal” as far as this country’s economic reality is concerned.
Low energy prices are predicted to be the prevailing circumstances in the near to medium term; barring any unforeseen geopolitical conflicts.
Even when new gas fields are brought into production in the coming months, the new gas isn’t “additional” gas— all it will do is fill in a portion of the gaping hole in the current gas supply shortage situation.
So the “lower for longer” scenario is likely to be the order of the day for some time.
The implications of this are fairly obvious.
Fiscal revenues and the Government’s ability to spend as a result is likely to remain muted.
Many private sector organisations are also feeling the squeeze.
Companies have been forced to send home workers both to rebalance costs in a contracting economy and, in some instances, simply to survive.
With this as the backdrop, one wonders if the almost weekly rumblings of some of the country’s largest trade unions can reasonably be justified?
Looking at the state sector, for example, there are companies whose performance over many years leaves much to be desired.
In fact, so bad has been their financial performance—and service delivery—that in order for the government to have any chance of curtailing further wastage requires that they be completely shutdown.
Shutting down a company is certainly no easy task and having workers placed on the breadline is not something any organisation takes lightly.
But therein lies the dichotomy: should the government continue to pour money into financially leaky vessels or make the tough, but necessary, decision to end the wastage?
It is in these areas that some in the trade union movement seem to miss the bigger picture, and it would be to their benefit to take a more collaborative stance than a combative one.
How can we as a country clamour for efficiency in government spending and less wastage on the one hand, but support inefficiency and wastage by allowing unprofitable state enterprises to continue unchecked on the other?
Fighting pitched battles the way unions have done traditionally (the “them” versus “us” scenario) does no good for both the unions and the members they represent.
It would perhaps be useful for the unions to recognise that sometimes their actions are, in effect, tantamount to “biting the hand that feeds them.”
An object lesson in this regard would be the now infamous “take your rig and go” statement as a clear case of bluster over good sense.
For sure, changing the way unions and companies engage will require re-examination of the current labour laws in T&T.
Using Petrotrin as an example, under the current laws the company will find it difficult, if not plainly impossible, to restructure its operations when faced with any opposition from its majority union.
This in spite of the fact that the company has been bleeding financially for years and others in its own industry have undergone recent restructuring.
Both the union and the company must bargain with a shared vision of improving the company’s financial outlook rather than take entrenched positions that do more harm than good.
A great example of such “collective effort” came in the 1980s in the United States.
Chrysler, under the leadership of Lee Iacocca, nominated then head of the representative union, the United Automobile Workers (UAW) Douglas Fraser to a seat on the company’s board.
Fraser served on the board for four years and was remembered for both protecting employees’ interest as well as extracting much-needed concessions from them.
Certainly his perspective changed when he was forced to view Chrysler from a different angle.
The time has come to stop opposing for the sake of opposition.