Strike action always harms the ordinary citizen, including those workers who are taking such action. But the strike action taken by the employees of Trinidad Cement Limited targets the most vulnerable category of worker — those who labour in construction.
This sector is the largest employer of unskilled and semi-skilled labour, i.e. those individuals who most need a regular job. But construction simply can’t go on without cement and, when the workers commenced their action last Monday, TCL’s management announced that there was just a two-week supply of cement available. In the sister isle of Tobago, hardware stores began feeling the pinch almost immediately.
On Thursday, TCL announced plans to import cement, but this can only be a stopgap measure. Meanwhile, the strike itself immediately assumed ugly overtones, with a confrontation between police and the strikers and allegations that taxi-drivers transporting replacement employees had their vehicles vandalised. One vice-president of the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU), which represents TCL workers, warned that the union would not be held responsible if any of these individuals were injured while working at the factories — raising the question as to why he should think anyone else might blame the OWTU.
The key point here is that the TCL workers have decided to strike at a time when their company is in some financial difficulty. The workers are demanding a 16 per cent wage increase, while the company has offered seven per cent, but the company might have difficulty meeting even that lower figure.
Last year, TCL had to stop paying on loans and apply to its creditors for a restructuring of its debts. That restructuring will start this year and add at least two per cent to the payments. And, in addition to that, the company has to find additional monies to pay workers’ increased wages in a local economy which will, at best, grow by just 1.7 per cent in the coming year and in a recessionary regional and international market where demand for cement will be low in the foreseeable future.
It therefore seems reckless for workers to strike now, unless TCL’s management failed during negotiations to convey some of these hard truths to the representing union. On the other hand, as energy journalist David Renwick pointed out in this week’s Business Express, the OWTU in its recent nine per cent wage increase has imposed a financial burden on Petrotrin that, in the absence of increased productivity or soaring energy prices, may well lead to retrenchment.
The TCL workers should be cautious about their union leaders making the same error with their company, because in these uncertain economic times, it is better to have a paying job than no job at all.