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Challenging times ahead for labour

Within the past year, two relatively young persons, not yet in their 40s, have assumed high-profile senior leadership positions in the island’s labour movement.

Towards the end of last August, Toni Moore took over as general secretary of the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU), following the retirement of veteran unionist Sir Roy Trotman, who had held the post for more than 20 years, after succeeding trade union icon the Right Excellent Sir Frank Walcott.

In recent elections to fill positions on the executive of the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW), Akanni McDowell, emerged as its new president, replacing the long-serving Walter Maloney who did not stand for re-election.

The position of NUPW general secretary is also vacant, following the departure of another veteran, Dennis Clarke, late last year. Roslyn Smith, another long-standing officer, is currently acting in the post until a decision is made on who will get the permanent appointment.

The selection of Ms Moore and Mr McDowell symbolically represents the start of a new era for the trade union movement with the passing of the baton from an older to a younger generation. The transition, however, occurs against a backdrop of significant challenges for the movement, resulting from fundamental changes in the society and economy over the last quarter-century.

Dennis De Peiza, general secretary of the umbrella Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations of Barbados (CTUSAB), drew attention to some of these issues in a candid address last weekend to the annual conference of the Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT). Topping the list is an eroding membership base which, he suggested, posed a threat to the movement’s long-term survival.

There was a time, not so long ago, when trade unions constituted a formidable force on the island. The movement was at the height of its power through strength of numbers; and none, either Government or the private sector, dared to step on its toes without incurring its wrath in some way. That was the era when Sir Frank Walcott, as BWU general secretary, was referred to as the “heavy roller”.

In those days, May Day celebrations organized by the BWU as the island’s biggest trade union, represented a major national event eagerly looked forward to every year. Thousands would descend on King George V Park and, after this venue was changed, the compound of the BWU Labour College, both in St Philip, to hear solidarity speeches and enjoy the festivities. May Day today is a shadow of this glorious past, reflecting the seeming declining role of the labour movement.

In fact, the image of trade unions has taken a beating in recent years amid wide-scale layoffs and a perception of powerlessness on the part of the unions to effectively protect affected workers. Compared with bygone years when unions would strategically flex their muscles through impactful industrial action and other forms of protest, it seems these days they are mostly complaining about their exclusion from decisions affecting workers.

Clearly, the movement needs to return to the drawing board and re-examine its role and relevance in a changing society and economy. Few would dispute that the movement has served Barbados well. Many progressive changes, which have been to the benefit of workers, were due in some way to the influence of the trade union movement that emerged from the working class struggle for better living conditions in the early half of the last century, especially the turbulent 1930s.

The challenges facing trade unions are not unique to Barbados. They are universal and can be traced to the global rise of free market policies in the 1980s, beginning in Britain under Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and the consequent dismantling of the socialist-oriented welfare state which union-affiliated governments had established. Free market policies spawned an environment where capital gained ascendancy over labour and individualism triumphed over collectivism which is the basis of trade unionism.

Little wonder there are many people today who consider hiring a lawyer as a better option if they have a work-related dispute than seeking resolution through trade union representation.

There is no doubt that challenging times lie ahead for the trade union movement which needs to reinvent itself to stay relevant. Needless to say, all eyes will be on the youthful leadership of both the BWU and NUPW, as this island’s foremost unions, to see what kind of innovative approaches they bring to ensure a vibrant future for a mass movement that still has an important contribution to make to national development.

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