The fight-back in Barbados

Outside of the severe macroeconomic circumstances afflicting the country, Barbados is now confronted with a tumultuous industrial relations climate.

This crisis situation is best manifested in the non-negotiated retrenchment of workers; callous down-sizing in some private sector entities; failure to right-size in the public sector; dubious contractual arrangements; the denial of some workers’ rights; wage freezes; and attempts at silencing the workers’ voices as per the BSTU, BWU, and other trade unions in one form or another.

Trade unionism in Barbados has always been a “journey of industrial freedom”. Let no Barbadian ever forget that it was about 75 years ago when the freedom fighter and father of democracy in Barbados, Grantley Herbert Adams, said that “the plantation system is basically the cause of our trouble”, and that “the system which has survived in Barbados … of having a small narrow, wealthy class and a mass of cheap labour on the other side, should be abolished” if a platform of democratically determined social justice is to be achieved.

The ILO’s first Director-General, Albert Thomas, argued that “economic and social questions are indissolubly linked and economic reconstruction can only be sound and enduring if it is based on social justice”. Barbados is exposed to a political structure in which the two major political parties traditionally have approached governance by courting “economic power and managerial expertise”. This has meant that the norms operating in the sphere of industrial and labour relations remain antithetical to labour.

Sir Hilary Beckles, was in the vicinity of truth when he noted that “a conciliatory arrangement between white corporate power and black political administrations” has constituted the “dominant political thrust” shaping Barbados’ political and national development. For decades, labour continues to struggle against competing forces inclusive of political elites and the capitalist classes.

Hence, contemporary attempts to silence the trade unions, together with their representatives and workers, will no doubt make more difficult the journey of industrial freedom. There is a claim that procedures for arriving at consensus with the tri-partite relationship existing in Barbados between Government, labour, and business are seemingly giving way to unilateral decision-making that is unfavourable to the workers.

Less interest and more lip service is being paid to the trampling of workers’ rights by exploitative capitalists. At the same time, the trade unions are negatively held up and scorned in the general public. Principles and procedures are abandoned and there are verbal swipes aimed at weakening the trade unions’ leadership if not their memberships.

It was elsewhere noted by Sir Leroy Trotman of the BWU, that there are some in the political corridors wishing to “introduce a number of soft laws which would reduce many of the rights of the workers” in Barbados. This signal turn, is a peril to democracy in Barbados.

Fuelled by a so-called global recession, labour in Barbados has been forced into a tactical but existentialist retreat. With labour having to maintain its struggle, the country is likely to erupt in a major power tussle. On one hand there will be the expression of labour’s might that comes through protest and withdrawal. On the other hand, the power-wielding business and political elites will seek to further divide and conquer.

Given the regular utterances in recent months, and the rumblings of industrial action, it is more than happenstance that a number of calculated efforts are in motion to negate the voice and strength of workers’ solidarity. Dr. George Belle refers to the pattern of events including official statements from several different political, business, and media players as an unfolding anti-trade union agenda.

Hence, a relevant question for consideration is: To what extent have Barbadians remembered their history and the journey towards freedom? Have Barbadians forgotten the travails of persons like Clement Payne, Ulric Grant, Israel Lovell, Sir Grantley Adams, Sir Frank Walcott, and Sir Hugh Springer to mention a few?

Governor Sir Alfred Savage, in October 1950, assented to a decision of the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council to abolish the property qualifications and grant the right to vote to all Barbadian citizens 21 years old and over. It was Sir Grantley, known as the Messiah and later to become a National Hero of Barbados that led the fight against the all-white Legislative Council to have Adult Suffrage introduced into Barbados.

Indeed, Barbadians need to be reminded that the organising and mobilising of the workers by their representatives played significant roles in the political development of Barbados. It was the labour movement that gave birth and real life to the Barbados Labour Party in 1938, and the Democratic Labour Party in 1955.

Emerging out of the formal inquiries after the 1937 disturbances, it was held that those uprisings stemmed from “a manifestation of the total dissatisfaction with the social and economic situations which the masses were forced to endure”. Although one may well argue that there is no similar ‘total’ breakdown in Barbados, the last five years has seen a burgeoning deterioration in the social and economic environment.

With pending general elections and the contestations between these two political parties, Barbados for several reasons is a country with pent up discord and much uncertainty. An anti-trade union discourse is being evidenced in Barbados.

A reading of the discourse is punctuated with phrases suggesting that the unions and their representatives should operate “with good sense” and show signs of “maturity” because industrial action may cause great economic damage” to Barbados’ “fragile” economy.

John Williams, chairman of the Barbados Private Sector Association, says that industrial action by one or more trade unions is considerably and “totally disproportionate to the matter at hand and the threat to the economic well-being of the entire country cannot be justified”. Whose interest does the BPSA represent?

The money-owning classes in Barbados are quickly rattled by any imminent mobilisation of the workers. The business and political classes are quite selective in their language, with both groups aware of the power of labour unions. Owning classes and hiring classes, inclusive of government, are conscious that workers’ power can be very detrimental to profits and to the surplus accumulation set as the key objectives of business elites.

Both the political and business classes seem to belittle and frustrate the efforts of unionism without making the exercise strikingly obvious. Taunts are being thrown to the workers’ representatives in a scolding manner. Clearly the intent is to rattle the key spokespersons in the workers’ unions.

There is a jabbing away at the hearts of the unions with capital questioning the representatives’ commitment to the national interest. So that persons such as the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s President, Lalu Vaswani, could postulate that strike or any industrial action “will cause great economic damage, and [now] is not the time for a strike given the challenging economic environment”.

It becomes easy then for the naysayers to warn that “these are tough economic times”; or that “teachers need to get on with the job at hand”; or that “the national recovery process is very fragile and would not sustain such disruption” should the trade unions decide to exert their innate power of marching in solidarity for a particular cause in order to achieve a necessary goal.

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