Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Negotiation, not confrontation

When it comes to the massively thorny problem of Petrotrin there's one thing the Government and the Oilfields Workers Trade Union (OWTU) agree on: the urgent need to restructure the State-owned petroleum enterprise.
That should be a solid enough basis on which to build common ground for moving forward in a productive manner. Instead, both parties seem headed for open confrontation from which Trinidad and Tobago is sure to be the biggest loser.

The exasperation expressed by OWTU president Ancel Roget is understandable. In pressing for the urgent restructuring of Petrotrin one year ago, his union presented its plan to Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.
What Dr Rowley made of it is not known. However, the fact that he is ready to act on the basis of the plan presented by the Wilfred Espinet board just a week ago without reference to the OWTU or its plan, would suggest that it is not part of his scenario for the State enterprise.

In the absence of information, the public has no basis for making any judgment about either plan. However, a more politically sensitive move following the board's presentation would have been for the Prime Minister to bring the OWTU into the discussion.
It was a missed opportunity for creating the political space for dealing with a serious economic problem. The OWTU's sharp response, signalling a mobilisation of opposition to the government's plan, was predictable. In the current depressed economic environment, the union is now touching the biggest hot button of all, job losses.
Before the situation gets to the point of no return, both parties need to call off the dogs and get to the negotiation table. While the OWTU is not known for backing off from a fight, it should consider whether it can really attract the public sympathy needed to successfully prosecute its cause.
On the other side, the Government should consider just how much the country stands to lose by open confrontation with workers at Petrotrin. Confrontation is the easy option here. The far more challenging but rewarding path would be a negotiated approach to the restructuring of Petrotrin involving all interests, not just the State and the OWTU. This would, however, require the capacity for real leadership.

In approaching the restructuring of Petrotrin, we urge all parties to recognise that their individual interest is best served through the national interest. Negotiation and compromise, not confrontation is the only path with any chance of a successful outcome.

Petrotrin is no simple challenge. Mr Roget was right in pointing out that the company's problems have much to do with its politicisation by successive governments.
If T&T was in a boom period now, there is a good chance that the Rowley administration which is now so intent on fixing Petrotrin's problems “once and for all in 2018”, would have followed its predecessors in turning a blind eye to the very waste and mismanagement that created its $15 billion in debt to taxpayers.
With enough blame to go around, all parties should get off their high horses and make their way to the nearest table.