In the first installment of this extended essay, I advanced the view that even though many may have predicted the imminent demise of the workers’ organization, given the individualization of many of the floor of rights accorded to workers and the ongoing decline in union density or membership coupled with an anti-union ideology on the part of many employers, this suggestion may be deemed in the words of Mark Twain “grossly exaggerated”, in light of the relative weakness of individual enforceability of workers’ rights; a weakness that may be cured by collective action, and the current global recession that is necessitating a new war on want especially for those workers at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Another factor that is likely to impact at least moderately on the modern workers’ organization in future is that of increased globalization, once aptly termed by former Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, Professor Rex Nettleford, as “a modern expression for an old obscenity”.
Among the challenges for the labour movement presented by globalization and identified by Rolando Muck of Dublin City University in a 2010 article entitled Globalization and the Labour Movement: Challenges and Responses, are the informalization of labour, international migration, the routinization of labour practices and a sustained attempt by capital to make the world’s workers pay for the collapse of the neoliberal globalization model nearly a decade ago.
He suggests, drawing on the Dutch experience, that trade union strategies to confront these challenges ought to include “the organization of new workers hitherto unrepresented in the traditional union, a clear orientation towards social justice and a vigorous engagement in the battle of ideas in terms of a vision for an alternative social order”.
So far as labour migration is concerned, the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, the virtual Constitution of the nascent or stillborn Caribbean Single Market & Economy, already provides for lawful access to the labour market of member states of CARICOM for certain categories of workers from other member states.
While these workers will have legitimate access to the labour market, not all migrant workers will satisfy this criterion. How then is the workers’ organization to treat with these individuals? Some unions in other jurisdictions have sought to organize such workers on the basis that “workers are workers are workers” in order to preclude the possibility of employers using their dubious status to undercut remuneration and other conditions of employment for local workers.
It must be recognized however that sentiments of nationalism and nativism run deep and that the collision between these sentiments and humanity to strangers will ultimately determine the way forward for unions in this context. All this is, of course, subject to the legality of the employment in the first place, since it is in very limited circumstances only that any employment rights may be availed of under an illegal contract of employment.
Additionally, public and private sector retrenchments test union strength, although the provisions of the Employment Rights Act, as witnessed in its recent decision concerning the unfair dismissal of the workers from the National Conservation Commission do endow the representative union with some significant consultative rights in the entire process.
There are more than a few who espouse the view that the historical struggle between capital and labour is now outdated and that the time has come for a partnered approach between them directed towards an improvement of the economy through increased productivity.
According to one local writer, “capital, often invested at tremendous risk, has a legitimate right to a fair return on investment…Labour, a key factor of production, has an equally legitimate right to a fair living wage and should not be forced to sell itself at increasingly marginal rated while capital earns supernormal profits…” It is not difficult to agree with this, even though it must be conceded that the devil of an optimal solution here is in the details.
For instance, one vice-president of human and labour relations at Canadian Pacific Railroad suggests that if unions, traditionally perceived as representative of blue collar or public workers, are going to progress “they’ve got to make it compelling for people to belong to that group that has an affiliation and an image for them that they can aspire to and be a part of…”
And while some see a role for unions in future –“If trade unions are permanently weakened and labour’s share of economic growth continues to decline, this could undermine the moral legitimacy of liberal democracy’, argues one writer, while another refers to Canadian studies that indicated “around 50, 000 people a year join a union for the first time in Canada across the country”-, others are less sanguine. The chief economist with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business was minded to assert, “The workplace s evolving. We are seeing higher educated people, we’re seeing people who are more discerning with information and they are choosing that they ‘d much rather work in a non-unionized workplace than a unionized one. There is also a portion of unionized workers who would rather not be unionized. My question to the symposium then, as it is now to my readers appropriately altered, -Which of these contrasting positions better apply to Barbados?
Congratulations to my former English teacher, Canon Ivor Jones, on reaching the 100th anniversary of his birth last week. Well lived, Sir!