AT this quite challenging period of global recession and related uncertainties for vulnerable economies in our Caribbean Community, it is encouraging to know that there is a Minister of Labour in Trinidad and Tobago, politically matured enough to hold the line between workers interest and that of a vital private sector enterprise which also bears a high regional profile.
Fresh from his success last month in averting a threatened pre-Carnival crippling strike at State-owned Petrotrin over an initial whopping 75 per cent pay hike demand by the Oilfields Workers' Trade Union (OWTU), Labour Minister Errol McLeod's intervention was, subsequently, to be eagerly sought for a resolution to the current pay dispute impasse between that very union and Trinidad Cement Limited (TCL).
With, as he claimed, TCL facing "financial ruin" as a result of OWTU's lingering strike action, Minister McLeod — the latest Cabinet minister in Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar's People's Partnership Government to act as head of Government — warned that the cement company could end up in foreign hands, in particular those of its major shareholder, Mexico's Cemento de Mex (CEMEX).
Clearly for McLeod, who had acquired quite a respectable profile over the years as president general of the OWTU, one of the best known trade unions regionally, would be most uncomfortable to discover that under his watch as Minister of Labour, TCL was to lose its proud identity in the ownership structure of leading corporate business enterprises to a foreign-based partnership entity—CEMEX.
Complicating the problem, both for him and TCL, is the prevailing implications for future good relations with the Partnership Government in Port of Spain as a consequence of the recent call by OWTU's current president, Ancel Roget, for an open break in ties between the trade unions-based Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) and Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar's administration.
Having earlier freed himself from active involvement in the MSJ — one of five segments in the Partnership — to better focus independently in the Cabinet as Minister of Labour, McLeod, the elected MP for Pointe-a-Pierre, was to succeed in resolving the pay-hike dispute between OWTU and Petrotrin with acceptance of a nine per cent increase over the three-year period involved.
The settlement compromise was quite a sharp contrast to the OWTU's original demand for a 75 per cent increase, accompanied by fiery rhetoric. But perhaps the core success rested in the surmounting of a perceived five per cent cap on pay hike for all public sector workers.
The government was to subsequently disagree with the OWTU's interpretation of a universal five per cent pay hike for all sectors of public service workers. More importantly, however, was the threatening ultimatum that came from the union's president general, Roget, for the MSJ to leave the Partnership unless there were adjustments in attitudes and policies on the part of the Government.
The Prime Minister has so far been careful to avoid any confrontation with the MSJ in general or the OWTU's president general Roget in particular. More significantly, she seems to have settled for ensuring that Labour Minister McLeod continues to have a free hand in fulfilling his portfolio responsibilities in the national interest, in the prevailing challenging social/political and economic climate for the nation.
For its part, the MSJ, in a statement released in the name of its political leader, David Abdulah, who is a Government Senator, has avoided a specific response to Roget's public demand for a break in relations with the Partnership. It opted instead to issue lengthy, four-page statement that articulates ideological/philosophical positions.
A more specific reaction outlined in the statement was what it envisages by the coming second anniversary of the Partnership Government on May 24. If by then, it said, the Government "fails to genuinely address" the issues framed, it will have "no alternative but to reconsider our relationship with the People's Partnership…"
Well, for his part, Labour Minister McLeod's immediate priority is to help find a resolution to the OWTU/TCL pay hike dispute that evidently requires a lot of goodwill on the part of all concerned stakeholders, not the least being his colleagues of the union with which so much of his social and political life has been involved.