Unions must change too
It is at times like these, when a country is on the verge of elections, particularly when like they are here, free and fair, that ordinary citizens consider themselves empowered.
It is a time when a few dozen men and women, who so often behave for five years as though they are “islands” unto themselves, suddenly act as the people’s servants. John Public gets to remind those who must know, who is really the master.
But even as ordinary folk try to breathe fresh life into their democracy, it ought also to be a time for other institutions that are key to the preservation of our way of life and our systems of governance to take fresh stock.
In this case we address the labour unions, which by virtue of the power they wield, can have huge influence on the direction a society takes. In the months leading up to this general election campaign, two unions in particular, the Barbados Secondary Teachers Union and the Barbados Workers Union have found themselves in disputes that have propelled them into the limelight.
It is our view that in both cases the unions took positions that were unnecessary, at least at the time they took them, and situations were escalated at a time they did not need to be — even if that escalation legitimately came at a later date.
In the case of the BWU in its dispute with LIME, we do not believe the threat of a national strike and the anxiety it caused were necessary. But the very way the union handled the matter after calling the strike suggested it too did not want a strike — or perhaps doubted it would escape from the battle without life-altering wounds.
We do not believe we are alone in the impression we got that the union’s bosses kept drawing lines in the sand and “backing-back” like sparring boys do. We also can’t help but notice that the insult which the union said it took from LIME’s action, and which required such urgent action, has now faded into the background while the elections campaign moves to the fore.
Is there a political influence at play here? Will we see this contrived dispute resurface after the election, depending on which party takes the reins in the next Parliament?
In the case of the BSTU, it is clear the battle has ended and all but one of the forces, as well as the negotiators have returned to their bases — while the union is still holding its hill. Fortunately, elections ought to provide them with enough cover to retreat to Belleville without being noticed. They have the chance to lose without losing face.
But the larger point is that while our unions have played a critical role in our affairs for decades and will no doubt continue to for some time to come, their leaders — and not just the BWU and BSTU — must recognise that these vital institutions must undergo plastic surgery.
They have to enter the game with an outlook that recognises that we are a different country from the 50s, 60s and 70s, but even more importantly, we are in a radically different world where every time we pause there is someone waiting to fill a void we may take years to reclaim, if ever.
We do not support the erosion of the rights of workers or any instances of disrespect by employers, but unions — or rather, union leaders — can’t see themselves as the font of all knowledge and the arbiters of all things right. Might — or as is becoming increasingly the case, perceptions of might — cannot always be right. Is that not what unions are fond of saying about employers?
And because we have always done it so does not mean it is still relevant or appropriate. It is time for our dispute resolution processes to undergo a radical shift — whether or not the unions think so.