Unions must move beyond strike action
With the current readiness to "down tools", take days off for "rest and reflection" and otherwise to stop work, trade union leaders might be well advised to pause and reflect on the benefits, or otherwise, of strike action.
The most recent case study is the strike which took place last March at Trinidad Cement Ltd (TCL).
Speaking in the Budget debate on Monday night, former trade union leader Errol McLeod described the action as "an error of great magnitude".
As the erstwhile head of the Oilfields Workers' Trade Union (OWTU), which represents the TCL workers, Mr McLeod's statement may be interpreted as pique, or experience, or some injudicious mixture of both.
The pique may arise from him having acted futilely as conciliator between the company and the union, even after the strike was officially over. In this task, the Labour Minister failed to achieve anything – the wage dispute was not resolved, 50 TCL employees are still not working, and the matter is still before the Industrial Court.
The OWTU, meanwhile, claimed as victory the fact that the strike was extended for a full 90 days before the legal requirement to go before the Industrial Court kicked in.
That hollow boast demonstrates that Mr McLeod's experience in negotiation was on target, and his successor Ancel Roget might have benefited by following Mr McLeod's counsel. "One decided that one must shut down the place and not listen to advice that is given," said Mr McLeod, not needing to name the "one".
His remarks are unlikely to endear him to the present OWTU and other labour leaders aligned to the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) which earlier this year bitterly quit the ruling coalition. That political dimension further complicates the self-analysis which unionists should be doing. But the minister's plain-talking assessment accords with the common sense conclusions made by uninvolved observers.
For the OWTU strike, noted for ugly violence, failed to shut down TCL or the construction industry. It also failed to deliver the workers' benefits allegedly sought over 90 days of action that delivered clear punishment to the TCL workers and little else.
"I am convinced that the trade union movement is very much alive," Mr McLeod added. But to be alive is not necessarily to thrive. Trade unionists, if they can overcome their own pique, need to consider how they can be more professional in their approach. In a 21st century economy, with workers less susceptible to ideological blandishments, trade union leaders need to school themselves in negotiation tactics that are more finessed that the hammer of strike action and other such protests. This is the only way the unions will remain relevant and truly serve the interests of employees.