When labour’s back is pressed against the wall
Defying the skeptics, the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) succeeded this morning in bringing out over 3,000 public workers on to the streets of Bridgetown. The march was the opening salvo of a five-phase plan of protest action over what the wider labour movement regards as the increasing marginalization of workers in a deteriorating industrial relations climate.
Supported by other trade unions and labour organizations, the limited national shutdown was triggered by the refusal of the state-owned Barbados Investment and Industrial Development Corporation (BIDC) to rescind a decision to send 13 employees, including 10 over the age of 60, into early retirement even though the national retirement age is now 67. Urged on by onlookers, who, from their comments, were of the view that such protest should have been staged long ago, the placard-bearing demonstrators set out from Queen’s Park, made their way through the centre of the City, and then headed to the NUPW’s Dalkeith, St Michael headquarters where the march ended. Phase two of the protest will be implemented tomorrow.
Was the NUPW premature and reckless in calling the protest? When all the supporting evidence is dispassionately considered, the answer, honestly, has to be “no”. For an organization which was described two years ago by its former general secretary as having its back against the wall, it is rather surprising that the union took so long to strike back, given the historic militancy of labour worldwide.
Against the backdrop of a deteriorating economy, it can be reasonably argued that the NUPW and wider labour movement exercised considerable restraint and patience in the national interest over the past seven years. Too much if you ask us!
In doing so, they naturally incurred the wrath of workers who, faced with a declining standard of living as a result of layoffs, higher taxation, a public sector pay freeze, introduction of tuition fees at the UWI Cave Hill and generally higher prices, felt the situation required more robust representation of their interests.
While the BIDC issue was apparently the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, today’s action was really the result of accumulated grievances and a feeling that it was being marginalized. Labour’s back was truly against the wall. With its credibility and prestige on the line, the movement is signaling, by embarking on protest action, a determination to fight back under a new generation of leaders who took the helm in the past year following the retirement of the old guard.
However, the fact that the industrial climate has deteriorated to this point does raise questions about the continuing effectiveness of the tripartite system, involving Government, business and labour. Wasn’t it established 20 years ago, at the height of a previous economic crisis, as a partnership in the national interest to discuss and resolve burning issues? This model of cooperation and consensus building which won Barbados international acclaim, suggested Government, business and labour had an equal seat at the table.
In recent years, however, it seemed sometimes as if labour was begging for a place at the table based on its many complaints about how the arrangement was working. It is also clear that trust, which is so vital for the tripartite system to work, has been damaged in the relationship between the unions and the Government. As NUPW President Akanni McDowell remarked today in relation to the issue involving the dismissal of 200 National Conservation Commission (NCC) workers, “we were burnt before”.
Revisiting the tripartite arrangement to repair relationships and correct any deficiencies therefore seems necessary for its continued viability; otherwise, it may only be a matter of time before the labour movement takes its exit if it comes to the stage where the unions feel participating is a waste of time.
It is understandable why the trade union movement would feel especially hurt by Government. From its inception, organized labour has had close a working relationship with both political parties. It is reflected in the fact that both political parties define themselves as “labour parties”, naturally suggesting that looking out for the interests of labour is a principal objective.
It is early days yet and national attention will be focused on the trade union movement during the days ahead to see how the protest strategy unfolds.
Youth, historically, has always been in the vanguard of societal change. In light of the recent transition in the leadership of the two leading trade unions, could this protest be representing the start of a turning point for the labour movement and industrial relations in Barbados?
It could be but only time will tell.