Why would you fan the flames, PM?
The role of the Press, in a free and democratic society such as ours, is to serve as a watchdog of Government, to prevent abuses of power, to highlight such abuses when they occur or draw public attention to the likelihood, and generally to ensure that constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights and freedoms are respected and upheld. Our comment today reflects an understanding of this historic role.
Section 21 (1) of the Barbados Constitution guarantees citizens and residents the freedom of assembly and association, as well as the right to form and belong to trade unions “for the protection of their interests”. The Constitution also lists a few specific cases where this right and freedom may be abridged.
One is where it is “reasonably required in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health”.
Commenting yesterday on the island’s deteriorating industrial relations climate and the growing likelihood of a general strike, our Prime Minister Freundel Stuart blasted the tactics of the trade union movement’s new leadership, singling out the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW), and threatening a likely response under Section 48 of the Constitution.
This section states: “Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, Parliament may make laws for the peace, order and good government of Barbados.”
Mr Stuart did not go into details, leaving the question open to speculation; but he told reporters: “The trade union has to be protected from adventurers. It has to be allowed to do its work.”
The comment raises a number of pertinent questions. To be specific, what does the Prime Minister mean when he says “the trade union has to be protected from adventurers”? Secondly, whose job is it? Also, what does Mr Stuart mean when he says the trade union movement “has to be allowed to do its work”?
To the best of our knowledge, the overriding purpose of the trade union movement is to promote and defend the interests of its members, which informs its work. Approaches to representation have ranged historically from being conciliatory to being militant. The choice is pretty much dictated by prevailing circumstances.
If the trade union movement feels its back is against the wall, to use the words of former NUPW general secretary Dennis Clarke about the current environment, then it may opt for a militant approach.
We hold no brief for the trade union movement. Indeed, we believe that rapidly changing national and global circumstances provide sufficient reason for the trade union movement to engage in serious introspection and undertake meaningful reforms that reflect new thinking in order to ensure its continued relevance and survival. The same too is required of Government, especially in the context of the present socioeconomic crisis, which has shown up many deficiencies.
The task of protecting the trade union movement, if there is indeed such a need, as Mr Stuart contends, is for the general membership; not the Government. Within the past year, both the NUPW and the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) underwent leadership changes which were endorsed by the rank and file in free and democratic elections. If the new leadership has opted for a more militant approach, it is because members have been calling for it to defend their interests.
Mr Stuart’s threatening remarks are cause for concern. If the trade union movement is the target today, whose turn will it be tomorrow once at odds with the Government? Could it be that Mr Stuart’s comments were influenced by partisan considerations, given the persistent claims by Government sympathizers that the NUPW leadership is affiliated to the Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP)?
While our preference is for a trade union leadership that is politically independent, we are aware, as surely as our Prime Minister must be, that the wider trade union leadership has always had close political party affiliations.
In fact, at one time, almost the entire leadership of the BWU was affiliated with the ruling Democratic Labour Party –– not to mention there are at least two former NUPW presidents who also had close affiliation with the DLP. For the sake of fairness, therefore, Prime Minister, there cannot be one rule for Peter and another for Paul.
At a time when there really needs to be a cooling of heads, we believe our leader’s belligerent language yesterday would likely fan the flames. In such a highly charged environment, it would more likely be harder for the Government and trade unions to find common ground as a basis for amicably settling current disputes that have been putting the country’s long-standing reputation
for stability at risk.