What are you for?

Former Prime Minister, Owen Arthur, in his own inimitable style, last week observed that the workers unions that have apparently banded together to bring down the Government have told us what they are against, but have so far neglected to tell us what they are for. Objective persons have seen some merit in Mr. Arthur’s sentiments.

Our trades unions have painted a bullseye target on their backs by virtue of their militant activities, in the absence of what appears to be sufficient attention being paid to other reasoned approaches to the challenges that are facing them.

It must always be remembered that in a capitalist society, workers have no power except their ability to unite in the face of challenge. Unfortunately, some union leaders choose to dip into this reserve far too often, in which case they risk shooting themselves in the foot through the loss of credibility. A last resort weapon should never be deployed except in emergency situations.

Lech Walesa, the Polish union leader, demonstrated the power of workers to change the politics of their country. If the power structure had forgotten the power of civil resistance, Walesa’s movement reminded them.

Of course, most successful workers revolutions work because other powers were are able to highjack that energy and naivety and use them to their advantage. What is the evidence of this? Look at all such successful movements and try to identify what were the long-term benefits to the workers at the end of the turmoil. The status quo always remained the same with different faces, but the same group, at the helm.

It was only after the fact that the role of the Catholic Church in the success of the Solidarity movement in Poland became known to the public. At the time of the marches, everyone thought that Lech Walesa was a workers’ rights genius who was single handedly taking the fight to the communist state.
During the Barbados demonstrations of the 1980s, we started out believing that effort was a workers fight. One well remembers the shock that descended on the room when Leroy Trotman, now Sir Leroy, informed the meeting that a well-known merchant had contacted him to say that he and his colleagues in the business sector had discussed the matter and they were willing to close their businesses for a part of the day to allow their workers to join the march against the then Government. Only then did we understand some of what was happening, but it was too late to change course.

The way our society is structured, workers are set up to fight against themselves. Since shortly after adult suffrage, all Barbados Governments were workers representatives, for the most part. It may be noticeable that union militancy is usually reserved for those occasions when they are facing their own representatives.
Private sector employers are often less kind to workers than the Government, but they hardly ever face threats to destroy their businesses. When such verbal threats are made, they are usually ignored, for it is common knowledge that hot air will dissipate. We are still waiting for the shutdown of Sandy Lane and the Royal Shop which was threatened and promised.

Further, no Barbados Government will allow unions to harm the wealth of the private sector. After all, while ordinary Barbadians cut each other’s throats to ascend the steps of our Parliament, they all go there to fight among themselves for the right to manage the resources of those who control the economy. And none of them is included in that group.

Intellectual discourse never takes place in shouting matches. The nature of things makes it difficult for union leaders to keep their base happy without catchy one liners that appeal to the emotional heart rather than pass the test of reason. The leaders have to reach solidly researched positions among themselves, for the shop steward meeting is not the place to learn these points.

It is widely believed that the unions are being partisan political rather than looking for genuine solutions for the workers. This optic is impossible to miss, but that is not a new play. We have always had union leaders who have used that platform to reach Parliament in order to advance the cause of workers, as well as opportunists who have temporarily adopted a union in order to achieve their personal goals and interests.

Unions in Barbados are the most privileged group in the society because of the work done on their behalf by union friendly Democratic Labour Party Governments. This should not be surprising because genuine union leaders saw that party’s agenda and the unions’ were the same. A survey of this country’s legislation and when these pro-worker and pro-union laws were passed tells a fantastic story. There can be no doubt, therefore, that unions have benefited much from political association.

But workers in Barbados have not always been sufficiently aware of how others who are not from among them, see them and use them. Some political aspirants have only looked to unions when their political agendum was ripe and they could see no better path to their goal.

In some cases, when they could find no easy path to the head of an established union, they set up their own. Such fly-by-night unions have traditionally not lasted very long because their creators were not able to persuade anyone of their bona fides and they may have had to actually do things on behalf of workers for a while before abandoning them once again and assuming their original stances.

In the current environment, there may be good reason for unions to be unhappy about the recent tax impositions. There is nothing wrong with them being against what has been imposed, but in 2017 being against is not sufficient. As Mr. Arthur asked, what are they for?

They certainly seem to be for regime change, but that does not present a solution to the problems now facing workers. It would be extremely disappointing if our union leaders did not recognise that the stances they have taken would result in many of their members being sent home from their jobs. I am not sure how this serves their interest. If they believe that this would make the Government too unpopular to be re-elected, they should also recognise that the party with which some of them are associated has not offered an alternative solution to the Government’s, hence, workers sent home now will remain unemployed for a long time.

Although they have allowed themselves to be pushed to the front line of other people’s battles, criticism without alternative proposals is not peculiar to the unions. This evidences that some people see all of us as malleable putty to be manipulated to suit their ends.

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