Be not derailed!
If ever there was a time that we needed to unite, it is now!
Toni Moore has officially taken up the mantle of leadership of the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU). Over the weekend, as the union closed its 73rd annual delegates’ conference, she delivered her maiden speech as BWU general secretary –– which is reproduced, in full, below.
As I stand before you this morning as general secretary of the Barbados Workers’ Union, I am overflowing with a tremendous sense of humility, but more so gratefulness to the founding fathers of this organization whose vision and commitment have helped Barbados to develop into the country that we know today; one whose pillars are community, equity and, social justice. I cannot help but acknowledge that it is their effort, their valiant struggle that permits me, a product of the lower class, a woman, a young woman, to stand before you as a leader in this male-dominated calling.
When I speak of the struggle and the work of the founding fathers, I aim not only to have you reflect on the contributions of the Right Excellent Sir Grantley Adams, the Right Excellent Sir Hugh Springer, the Right Excellent Sir Frank Walcott or my immediate predecessor Sir Roy Trotman, but I also aim to express appreciation to the contributions of the many unsung heroes, shop stewards and members of the BWU who have inspired and supported the work in a way that gave impact to this organization’s toil.
I think of my grandfather, a dedicated union member for a number of years, but more so I think of my grandmother, the late Etta Gill, a former “sugar workers” delegate who believed in this organization and who gave and expected very little in return for her sacrifices on behalf of comrades. If only it were possible that she could look down on these proceedings this morning, I know that it would be with a sense of overwhelming pride –– that that same blood and passion courses through my veins, that same commitment to fight for, protect and defend workers’ rights and dignity.
To the female stalwarts of this organization, but particularly those still on staff –– Yvonne, Evette, Veronica, and more recently Wilma –– if I never get another opportunity to do so, I wish to publicly thank you for inspiring me to reach, to aspire and to recognize that I can contribute at the highest levels within this organization. I thank you because I recognize that your efforts over the years cleared the way, breaking through the gender barriers that would seek to restrict the woman’s role in the movement only to one of support.
Evette, with you in particular, I spent a number of stimulating moments where you took me back through the history of the woman’s struggle in the movement, and this movement in particular.
I am happy that in your lifetimes, and as staff members, you can witness your contribution being rewarded as you serve alongside the first female president and first female general secretary of the BWU. We applaud you.
To the workers, and in particular those at this 73rd annual delegates’ conference, I thank you for your vote of confidence and for signalling, on behalf of the wider membership, that the BWU is ready to embrace change; not merely by virtue of the fact that you have elected a young woman, but a young woman who is a young wife and young mother.
Your vote reinforces your understanding of the need for such equality and assures me of your acceptance that family responsibilities do not constitute a sufficient reason to determine that your interests can not be represented under my leadership. In fact, I accept it as your expectation of me that because I share the same reality as a wide cross-section of our membership, I am suitably positioned to continue to advocate for public and private partners to take account of the needs of workers with family responsibilities.
On this note, I urge you not to be derailed by the suggestion from any representative of Government, the private sector or perhaps, any other house of labour, that there is an immediate or imminent move to replace “archaic labour laws”; for you may or may not know, but many of these laws to which there is repeated reference from some ministers of the Crown and employers are in place only to take account of the needs of workers in terms and conditions of their employment, health, safety and social welfare. The Congress of the BWU recognizes that change may be prudent in some areas, but that such change can only be supported by us where it does no injustice to our mission, which is “to improve the quality of life for workers”.
In the recently concluded election on Day 1 of this conference, I became your general secretary with a vote of 99-70 over my challenger. Certainly I am grateful to the 99 who expressed positive support for my eligibility and capacity to lead this organization; but I am equally obliged to the 70 who voted against me.
I am happy that our democratic exercise has silenced the mouthing of some cynics who sought to suggest that there was a move to have me enter the sheepfold by means other than the door. The outcome has also challenged me that, like the good shepherd, I must safeguard the 99 but that I must also come after you, not because you have left the fold of the BWU but because I need you to be assured that this 73rd annual delegates’ conference made the best choice.
To my family, I thank you for your support, that which I have received up to now and that which has been committed. Your presence here today, along with my faith in God bolsters my resolve, assists my confidence and assures me that with your kind of support, I need not experience the levels of alienation and loneliness that is often inevitable in positions of leadership. I love and thank you all.
This conference will undoubtedly prompt much reflection and debate, but we should all endeavour to make such debate worthy of this organization’s rich inheritance. We have a responsibility to show that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those which unite us. The election is over (at least for some of us); so let’s get on with the work.
The Barbados Workers’ Union is changing guard at a time when we are still very much in the throes of a financial crisis. Over the past two decades, we have experienced a shift from the formal economy to an informal economy, a shift which in the past six years has been occasioned not by choice, but by the need to survive.
Globally, workers are fighting against attempts by employers and, unfortunately, some governments to repeal the terms and conditions which the trade movement fought to secure for the working class.
During the coming weeks and months, this organization would need to be revisiting and modifying its strategic plan. The existing 2008-2014 plan gives attention to a number of areas which are as relevant now as they were when the plan was first constructed:
However, we must now focus on how these areas of strategic importance can be addressed to achieve our primary objective of organizing.
The large-scale retrenchments of the past 12 to 18 months, especially in the public sector, have shifted our focus from offensive action which encourages workers to join to greater emphasis placed on maintaining existing membership, or at least reducing the flow of departures.
In meeting tomorrow’s challenges, shop stewards will need to be trained to resolve many of their own workplace issues rather than relying primarily on full-time officials of the union to do so. In fact, the model of organizing envisioned by your new general secretary may require current staff and shop stewards to undergo a series of training sessions on organizing, and will see the organizing committee and organizing department being transformed for greater militancy and mobilization.
The BWU has to pursue a course to maintain its visibility and presence. To this end, we will give greater attention to:
Workers in the informal sector;
Workers in small and medium enterprises; and
Organizing youth and women, especially since these are among the most vulnerable in the labour market and helping them to improve their working lives.
We cannot hope to achieve the results from any organizing thrust without recognizing and addressing our service delivery gaps and exploring new instruments of delivering benefits to our members and the working class of Barbados. We have been listening to you over the years and will continue to do so; the new executive council will be persuaded to pursue further means of mitigating the economic and social challenges
confronting workers. In this regard, as an immediate assignment, you may wish to direct the new Council to supplement social benefits in the area of health insurance, thereby lending direct assistance to those members who are asking for it.
As part of a renewed organizing emphasis, we will be reshaping our communications strategy, taking account of the need to reach and relate better to our various publics, intensify our community outreach and achieve greater involvement of our membership in trade union activities. And, yes, the aim is to incorporate more effective use of website and social network resources available.
Our organizing thrust must continue to give attention to the promotion and defence of workers’ rights. In a short while, we shall be debating a resolution on amendments to the Employment Rights Act. We are witnessing far too many attempts by employers to reduce the provisions of existing collective agreements to meet the bare minimum requirements of this piece of legislation, thereby undermining the intent of the law.
Sadly, in some instances where rights and benefits are being repealed, many workers are not fighting back but are retreating not because they no longer need unions, but because fear has taken over to the extent that we want pursuit of justice but at the expense of the other person’s sacrifice or investment.
So we want to strike, but the union must pay us; we want improvements, but not by our sweat. As a relatively young person, I accept that in many respects it is not our fault; too many of us have been served the benefits we enjoy on the proverbial silver platter.
But, comrades, as I take up the challenge of leadership, I urge you also to flex your muscles and get ready to defend your rights. If ever there was a time that we needed to unite, it is now! If we don’t do this now, we run the risk of reflecting in our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in Barbados when we had rights.
I could not end an address to you without addressing the subject of partnership. You have heard it from my immediate predecessor and you should also get a pronouncement from me. The BWU has been out front in many respects calling for consultations at the bipartite and tripartite level, insisting that social partners embrace inclusionary forms of decision-making. We will continue to be so guided, but as we look towards tomorrow we may recognize that we can indeed travel the same road, but just using a different vehicle.
I finish with a quote from Lyndon Johnson, a former president of the USA: “Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.”