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More to labour than disputes

By COREY CONNELLY Sunday, June 15 2014

Trade union leaders are being urged to direct their energies against individuals and institutions which exploit the working class.

As Trinidad and Tobago prepares to celebrate the 41st anniversary of Labour Day, declared a public holiday, on Friday, historian Dr Jerome Teelucksingh is calling on leaders to be “more progressive” in their thinking, and that activities must not be restricted to the fight for greater amenities and compensation packages.

“Today, trade unions must continue the fight but it must be directed against institutions and persons who are economic parasites that drain our economy and exploit the working class,” Teelucksingh said in an interview on Wednesday.

“Labour leaders must be more proactive in eradicating social problems such as unemployment, racism, religious discrimination and poverty, “ he said.

Labour Day, which was first proposed as a public holiday in 1973, commemorates the struggles of late labour leader Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler who worked tirelessly for the rights of the working classes, particularly within the oil belt in South Trinidad, during the 1930s. The historic event is celebrated annually at Charlie King Junction, Fyzabad.

Teelucksingh noted that trade unions in TT and the rest of the Caribbean were sometimes viewed as irrelevant given the perception that activities were limited to protests and efforts to “shut down” the country.

He said many people were not aware that, prior to 1962, trade unions were the most powerful opponent of colonialism and imperialism.

Caribbean citizens owe their independent status to the long struggle of labour leaders and members who undermined European colonialism, he added.

Teelucksingh observed that some workers have lost faith in the trade union movement because they were not prepared to fight in the trenches or endure delays in the collective bargaining process.

He attributed this scenario to the fact that workers were more educated now as compared to years gone by.

“This disenchantment by workers is largely a result of a new generation of union members who are more educated and less tolerant of myopic leadership,” he said.

He added that “spineless” labour leaders who make empty threats and seek cheap publicity contribute to the loss of faith in trade unions.

“Many workers are frustrated and no longer want to be political pawns. Some workers are beginning to realise that broken promises and hypocrisy are part of previous, current and future governments,” said Teelucksingh, a lecturer in the Department of History at the St Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies.

He alluded to the Public Services Association’s (PSA’s) “surprise” signing of five per cent offer for public servants with Chief Personnel Officer Stephanie Lewis in April 2011, a move which prompted many labour leaders to label the organisation’s president, Watson Duke, a sell-out.

Duke, who was somewhat ostracised from the movement during the past three years, now appears to be back within the fold of the fraternity.

The PSA leader joined his comrades in the trade union movement during a news conference, hosted by the Joint Trade Union Movement (JTUM), on Monday, at the headquarters of the Communications Workers’ Union at upper Henry Street, Port-of-Spain. However, Duke said his union’s involvement in the traditional Labour Day march on Friday would depend on discussions with the members of JTUM.

Teelucksingh believes that the future of trade unionism in this country appears “partially bleak and dim.”“This is because political parties tend to use trade unions to gain political office and after winning or losing an election, the unions are discarded or treated with contempt,” he said.

Recalling that trade union members were accused of being responsible for the oil spill at State-owned Petrotrin a few months ago, Teelucksingh reasoned that such allegations would only diminish the achievements of trade unionism.

Inspite of these realities, Teelucksingh says there was still hope.

The existence of the JTUM, he said, “is a good indicator of leaders who have a vision for a strong, united trade union movement to be a voice for the voiceless.”

Teelucksingh said he has no qualms about labour entities playing a role in politics as was the case ahead of the 2010 general election when former President of the Oilfields Workers Trade Union Errol Mc Leod and former leader of the All Trinidad Sugar and General Workers Union Rudranath Indarsingh entered the arena.

Mc Leod and Indarsingh are now Minister of Labour, Small Micro-Enterprise Development and Minister in the Ministry of Finance, respectively.

Teelucksingh said it was critical that labour has a voice in politics.

“This is one of the strategies to ensure that trade unions are respected and do not become marginalised and alienated. This is not a recent phenomenon,” Teelucksingh said. The historian recalled that during the 1920s and 1930s, the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association (later known as the Trinidad Labour Party) and its members such as Captain A. Cipriani and Timothy Roodal, were involved in the party politics and became members of the Legislative Council (Parliament).

During the 1946 and 1950 elections, Teelucksingh said, labour continued to be part of the political landscape with such parties as the Trinidad Labour Party, Trinidad and Tobago Trade Union Council and Socialist Party of Trinidad and Tobago.

“Their voices represented the working class in the colony,” he said.

However, Teelucksingh said trade unions must be wary of the fact that once they are politically stereotyped and stigmatised “it is difficult to shed their political colours and appear independent.”

“Trade unions need to adopt an ideological stance and not be fooled or conned into accepting political handouts,” he said.

Teelucksingh described as “invaluable,” the significance of Labour Day to the trade union movement.

“It is a day to assess their shortcomings, achievements and future strategies.

Labour Day is another opportunity for the trade union movement to reflect on the level of working class unity,” he said, noting that the first anniversary of the June 1937 riots was celebrated at Emporium Hall in Fyzabad.

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