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The Labour Movement (Part 2)

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This week, I conclude the comments on the Labour Movement in the Caribbean, continuing from last week. We left off with mention of the concerns of Grenadian trade unionist Chester Humphrey about the state of the regional trade union movement. Humphrey’s comments were not just a pragmatic reaction to what he perceives as the decline in the fortunes of the movement, but were made in the wider global context.

All over the world, he noted, globalisation and the liberal agenda, are placing working people under more and more pressure. There has been a significant weakening of the labour movement internationally and a concerted effort on the part of those opposed to the workers movement to sow even more seeds of division and discord.

Among these efforts is a deliberate campaign to try and convince workers that trade unions are irrelevant in today’s world, that there is no need to organize, and that benefits are to be gained by individual means. There are workers today who still fall for the propaganda that unions only take dues from workers to feather the nest of union leaders who do not get benefits for workers. This is not only untrue; it is downright DANGEROUS, aimed at leaving workers to fend for themselves on an individual basis where they are far more vulnerable.

The veteran unionist also spoke of how politics is used to divide the labour movement and to play into the hands of those who do not want to see a strong or united movement. Over the years, Humphrey reminded us, workers have been bombarded with the false messages that unions should stay away from politics. Yet some of those who peddle these ideas persistently try to co-opt union leaders to support their agenda, not the one of the workers.

The issue is not whether unions or union leaders should shy away from politics, it is a matter of being able to deal with political issues from the standpoint of the working people and being committed to the independence and unity of the labour movement. It is important to distinguish which issues and what policies serve the interests of the workers and working people as a whole and ensuring that the movement does not become beholden to any party or leader to the detriment of the workers.

Thus there is nothing wrong, in principle with any union or union leader giving support to any policy or policies of a particular party. However, in the same way the movement must also reserve the right to oppose any such policy deemed to be against the best interests of the labour movement. That is what freedom of association and independent actions are all about.

Regrettably, support for parties and governments are sometimes taken overboard to mean slave-like kow-towing to the interests of those in power, or conversely opposing policies even when they are in the best interests of the working people. The workers movement needs allies, socially and politically, but it is important for its leadership to develop the level of class consciousness which permits the pursuit of independent action of the movement and the preservation of its integrity.

The labour movement in the Caribbean today is but a caricature of what it was at its height, in the 1950s and ’60s, even down to the ’70s. Chester Humphrey made this point when he spoke here last week, stating, sadly, that the movement was now in its weakest state, the mobilisation for Workers’ Day, May Day, being a clear example.

Being in such a state, disorganized and disunited, the movement is in no shape to deal with the critical issues facing it. These include trying to unionize the army of non-unionised workers, including domestics and workers in the hospitality industry, mainly women, who are ruthlessly exploited. Then there are the unemployed workers and the need to build links with the informal sector as well as to rebuild links with the social movement, the farmers, co-operatives, small business groups and non-governmental organisations.

Petty bickering serves no useful purpose. The National Labour Congress needs to get its act together, to discuss issues frankly and in a principled manner. Those who use the union movement to further personal and selfish ambitions must be exposed and combated and the interests of working people must be put before those of any party, leader or political group.

It means that unity in the movement must be pursued painstakingly if the movement is to survive and the workers’ interests defended. This will not be easy, nor will it either be plain sailing or pleasant, but it must be done.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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