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Reflect on strike tactics

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It is regrettable indeed that in the month of National Independence, our country has had to face industrial action by its teachers and public servants in pursuit of wage demands. Both sets of workers are key elements in ensuring the success of independence celebrations. Teachers, in particular, have a special role given their influence on, and interactions with, the students and pupils of our nation.{{more}}

There is no doubt that the basis of the claims of the unions, remuneration to enable them to better cope with economic hardships, would strike a responsive chord among most Vincentians. The effects of the prolonged world-wide economic crisis are felt not only here, but throughout the rest of the Caribbean, and indeed, with few exceptions, throughout the world. The lack of fairness in economic and power relations ensure that working people bear most of the suffering.

Given this situation, the agitation of the unions is understandable. Whether the action taken is appropriate in the circumstances is another matter. The Government has had to acknowledge that the claims for pay increases have merit. Where the dividing line has come has been in its ability to meet those claims.

Worse, the dispute between the Government, as employer, and its employees, occurs within a climate that is very politically charged, given impending elections. This appears to have affected the tactics of the unions, for the demand was made, not only for the payment of a tax-free sum, equivalent to one month’s pay, but that it should be paid “before the holding of general elections”. It also largely helped to shape public responses with key elements within both parliamentary political parties using the media to promote the respective views – the Opposition figures egging the strike on, whilst pro-government activists urged restraint and tried to undermine the union’s case.

This had bearing on the tactics employed in the dispute and eventually may have affected the outcome. As a strong advocate of the cause of the working people, it was sad to observe that in such an important dispute, disunity and lack of clear leadership undermined the cause. No matter what spin is given to it, one cannot truly say that the one-day strike has been effective in advancing the claims of the unions.

This is not encouraging for there is still a strong anti-union perception in the public. Each failed action taken by unions reinforces the view that unions are ineffective, and even unnecessary. Those who provide bad advice to further their own political ambitions can become your opponents tomorrow if the boot is on the other foot.

It is worrying to note the divisions both within the labour movement as a whole, and even within the leadership and general bodies of the unions. Very disheartening was it to witness union leaders being spurred on to attack their colleagues within the movement as a whole. Granted that there must be differing political perspectives in the unions and that some union leaders are openly identified with this or that party, but on industrial matters, on issues where the interests of the working people are at stake, those interests should be put before all else.

Clearly, the tactics employed did not suggest experience in the handling of such matters. Why did there have to be a grand announcement of a “strike”? Wouldn’t a one-day sick-out have been more appropriate? Or is it that the ‘strike’ word, created the impression of militancy? It was even being badly mooted in the case of the “fix the roads” dispute between the bus-drivers organisation, NOBA, and the government.

One does not have to agree with the politics of Burns Bonadie or Noel Jackson, but no one can deny that, by a long, long distance, they are the most experienced trade unionists in our country. To what extent was their advice sought and experienced utilized? Was it tactically wise to be attacking them in public? Or to engage in public wrangling with the leadership of NOBA on the eve of the ‘strike’?

When one is about to take industrial action, one needs all the friends one can get, or at least to minimize the number and influence of those not yet on board with you. One does not embark on statements which could have the effect as calypsonian Pappy sang, of having “ a few less friends tonight”.

Simple things like these are vital for success. It is not bravado which wins, nor the taunts of those who encourage you to flex the muscles you may not possess.

There is a lot to learn from the misadventure. Teachers march annually to “REMEMBER NOVEMBER”(1975 strike). It would do them well to reflect on the events of the past week and to REMEMBER OCTOBER as well.

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