The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them –MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., speech to AFL-CIO, Dec. 11, 1961
As the Barbados Worker’s Union (BWU) approaches its 75th anniversary of existence, having been established in October 1941, it is arguably as appropriate a time as any to contemplate the centenary and to imagine what the next 25 years hold for it as an organization. Fortunately, there is, of course, little likelihood of its demise so long as the current praxis of industrial relations continues and so long as there is a need to pursue a war on want for the working classes of the nation. Yet, these are difficult times in the life of any institution, especially one whose core functions include the pursuit of a more equitable share of a rapidly shrinking economy in an era of globalization. In 2013 I was invited by the Industrial Court of Trinidad & Tobago to present a paper at its annual symposium on “The role of the workers’ organization in modern and future industrial relations” and I now propose to draw on that study to share a few ideas on what the future may hold, not only for the BWU specifically, but indeed for all existing local workers’ organizations.
The discussion is set against a background of a contemporary decline in union density or membership, owed not so much to individual disillusionment with the collective leadership of these organizations as to the comparative decline in the number of unionized establishments and the emergence of new non-unionized operations in their stead. Generally, unionization tends to raise the cost of wages and benefits to an employer since this is one of the union’s core functions as a stated above. However, there is no necessary corresponding gain in productivity at the same time thus placing the unionized operation at a comparative disadvantage vis a vis those who are non-unionized.
Moreover, Barbados does not yet have a compulsory regime of union recognition, even though it appears to be generally accepted that local industrial custom and practice is to the contrary. This state of affairs permits some union avoidance by those employers who are so ideologically inclined and the practice without statutory expression may act as a deterrent to further investment or expansion by some potential employers.
This real decline in union density signifies that a significant number of workers are now covered by individual rather than collective contracts of employment, what Professor Cynthia Estlund termed in a 2013 working paper as “a representation gap” or “an unmet desire of collective representation”. Nevertheless, this unmet desire is apparently not necessarily for representation by the traditional union as she refers to an in-depth survey of worker attitudes that found that nearly 85% preferred a representative organization that was run jointly by employees and management, much like the safety and health committees provided for in the Barbados Safety and Health at Work Act 2005, while the remainder opted for independent union representation. Of course, such a survey has not been effected in Barbados so that any similar conclusion would be pure conjecture. But it provides a cautionary tale to local unions that the relationship with their members ought not to be taken for granted.
In a scenario of individual employment, the creation of a floor of individual rights such as minimum wage legislation, holidays with pay, maternity leave entitlement to severance pay on retrenchment and the right not to be unfairly dismissed, all present in Barbadian law to some extent, does appear ostensibly to attenuate the need for collective representation but some deficits may still subsist in such a system.
For one, legislation sets minimum standards only and does not prohibit greater entitlements by agreement of the parties, a reality that in turn implicates the bargaining power of parties to the contract. It is trite that the bargaining power of the individual worker is comparatively inferior to that of organized labour in this context.
Too besides, the enforcement of this floor of rights lies in the volition of the individual employee, a scenario fraught with the possibility of retaliatory misconduct by an employer. It is true that the existence of unfair dismissal legislation has substantially enhanced the job security of the individual Barbadian worker, but more employers than a few might be prepared to take the risk that a dismissed employee will be unwilling or otherwise reluctant to avail of his or her right not to be unfairly dismissed before an unpredictable Tribunal. Such employers may simply ignore the worker’s rights and dare him or her to seek to enforce them.
As Professor Estlund argues, “legal enforcement is ultimately counterproductive for workers because those costs are greater than the incremental gain in job security and will be borne by the employees in the form of lower wages. In short, workers are and rationally should be unwilling to pay for the benefit of legal enforceability; it is simply not with the price…”
Finally, some rights depend on collective or, at least more than individual knowledge for their effective enforcement. While an individual employee may be ignorant as to a pattern of discriminatory conduct by an employer, shared stories among workers, eminently probable in a workers’ organization, may unearth this sort of behaviour.
The foregoing analysis, it is submitted, equates to a cogent case for the continued relevance of the workers organization into the next few decades at least.
To be continued…..