Capital and labour on solid air

There is often an uncomfortable relationship between capital and labour, employer and employee.

We have watched many adversarial situations play themselves out in Barbados in both the private and public sector which in some cases could have been avoided.

Trade unions, as is their mandate, must safeguard the interests of their members. And as is their function, they must represent those interests when their members are right, and also when they are very wrong. We have had cases, some still in abeyance, where unions have fought causes that were comfortably indefensible.

Those in charge of capital have a more difficult task than labour. They have the task of balancing profitability and sustainability with maintaining a mutually productive relationship with labour. If labour threatens the sustainability of capital, then often labour must pay the price. It is then the task of trade unions to fight labour’s cause if only to soften the inevitable fallout.

Of course, sometimes extraneous occurrences impact on the relationship between capital and labour that have nothing to do with profitability or productivity –– egos, disrespect, politics, and the like.

President Abraham Lincoln, during his annual message to Congress on December 1, 1862, stated that labour was prior to, and independent of capital. Capital, he suggested, was only the fruit of labour and could never have existed if labour had not first existed.

“Labour is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights,” he said.

A few decades earlier the American statesman Daniel Webster suggested that labour was proud and independent and did not have to ask the patronage of capital, but that capital solicited the aid of labour. He pointed out, though, that if one divorced capital from labour, “capital is hoarded, and labour starves”.

To withhold one’s labour, whether judiciously or injudiciously, is the right of every employee. Of course, one must be prepared to face the consequences if that action was carried out injudiciously and not in keeping with the rules governing the employment relationship. We have had situations in Barbados, specifically in the public sector, where labour has been withheld both judiciously and injudiciously, and the trade union movement has won the day in both instances. The Alexandra School fiasco springs readily to mind. Of course, security of tenure in the private sector is less written in stone and employees tend to be somewhat more guarded in the manner they withhold their labour.

The greatest obstacle to a smooth relationship between capital and labour is that though the hallucination of productivity exists and is perfunctorily trumpeted regularly, that commodity is neither enshrined in black and white nor culturally ingrained in relationships between capital and labour. Sometimes, in agencies     such as the Barbados Water Authority, productivity comes as a means to an end, such as strategic facilitation of overtime pay.

In an ideal situation, labour should link productivity to both the sustainability of capital and the longevity of employment. Likewise, capital should not always be unwilling to sustain marginal and manageable losses in the interest of the comfort or advancement of labour.

The global economic crisis and the downturn in fortunes in several sectors appear to have occasioned a greater appreciation for productivity, especially in the private sector. However, the jury remains sequestered with respect to what transpires in the public sector even though that has taken some redundancy hits.

Perhaps one of the most aggravating aspects of the public sector relates to human resources management and respect for authority.

We have, for instance, labour unrest at the Parkinson Memorial Secondary School where plans implemented by a headmaster have been reportedly reversed in his absence. His reinstitution of those systems, and we daresay his management style, have led to calls for his head and the marshalling of troops by a familiar foe from another battle. Maybe one day, teachers –– and principals –– will simply go to school, teach and administer to the best of their abilities, and go back to their respective homes where they can then unleash their egos to their hearts’ content at the properties which they own.

All fights are not necessarily about rights. Some have no other genesis than an unwillingness to compromise. Many disputes have no other obstacle to resolution than stubbornness and personality clashes. There is naked obdurateness to be found in both labour and capital. Sometimes so intent are the practitioners on not appearing to lose the battle, they do not realize that in the scheme of things they have their feet firmly planted in the air.


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