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Unions need fresh guard

It would not take a lot of examination to arrive at the conclusion that the days immediately ahead for the trade union movement in Barbados are likely to be rocky.

The current social and economic climate makes a very bold statement on this.

How our trade unions emerge from these troubling times will largely depend on the maturity of the thinking of their leaders. The tendency to wave the “Sword of Damocles” over the heads of anyone who holds a contrary view will hardly bring positive results this time around.

Before we go further, however, we must place on the record the fact that we hold to the view that the trade union movement in Barbados has contributed in no small measure to the development of our country and our people. The stalwarts of the labour movement have demonstrated repeatedly that the interests of labour and those of capital don’t have to be mutually exclusive, especially when the national agenda remains in focus.

This is not to say that every decision of the labour movement has been correct, but that a level of maturity has pervaded our “politics” that has repeatedly allowed us to breathe easy and declare “All’s well that ends well!”.

In the days ahead, however, all the signs suggest that the environment that we have crafted over many generations will be tested. Government can only deny or hide its cost-cutting agenda for so long — largely because it can’t put off forever making the harsh decisions.

Something must give in order for Government to achieve a more balanced fiscal position and whatever that something turns out to be, workers in both the public and private sectors will feel the squeeze. Labour union leaders are paid by their members to represent them and we would be less than sensible if we did not expect the unions to do just that.

How they set about doing it is another matter.

The Government, throughout its re-election campaign, stressed that there would be no job losses. Noble a promise as it was, a prudent mind must still ask if it has the capacity to keep this promise today. [One may even ask if it had the capacity to do so then.]

In similar vein, Government spokesmen have half-heartedly denied our story earlier this week that the plan for the Transport Board was to put staff on a three-day work week. We will shortly see just how wrong the article was.

The point though is that the unions have to come up with sensible proposals on how the impact on workers can be minimised, and perhaps they should take the initiative rather than waiting for Government to “announce” what it intends to do. For sure, the membership of the unions contains a huge volume of intellectual capital that, if engaged, can bring meaningful alternatives to the table.

What can’t guide the exercise, however, is the often touted “We will march!” as a precursor to talks. This is archaic bullying demonstrated by union leaders whose primary motivation is to show off enough labour muscle to maintain their ivory towers and warped sense that they supersede all other mortals.

The same way politicians fall out of touch with the world in which they operate because the rapid pace of development can overtake them, our union leaders need too to recognise that because their approach and thinking were justified in the 1960, 70s, 80s and even 90s does not mean they automatically fit into today’s scheme of things.

We believe that too often those who lead fail to recognise enough that the changes we need to make are not occasioned by us, but by the world in which we must do business — and our name, our history, our weather and our past achievement mean very little. All that matters to them is today’s circumstances — and there is nothing we offer that can’t be had elsewhere.

So call what’s rushing toward us financial cuts or improved efficiency — the title is irrelevant. We need to make serious decisions on the size of the civil service; how we operate our ports; how we fund garbage collection; how much we pay directly for public transport and just who delivers it and how; whether university students pay more fees up front or if they repay some or all after graduation; if the private sector will have a greater role in road maintenance and development and if motorists will pay some direct “fee” in compensation; whether the Barbados Water Authority will become a lean “regulatory” agency and more efficient structures put in place for the delivery of water. And the list goes one.

It is these kinds of approaches that our unions must take the lead role in if they don’t want to find themselves in a make or break situation. Ego and chest thumping will help little in the circumstances!

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