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Monday 19 November 2018
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Commentary

Why we need unions more than ever

REX CHOOKOLINGO

EVEN THOUGH I have belonged to trade unions in the past, I’ve only joined them under duress; it was either that or I would not be hired since they were closed shops. Needless to say, I thought it was unfair to force new employees to become union members over which they had no choice but to comply or out you go.

I have always felt I could do a better job of representing myself than a union representative could. After all, why should I wait years for the union to ask for a blanket raise that covered all workers in order for me to benefit? Why can’t I just go to the boss and ask for a raise for my hard work, work ethic, and diligence? Furthermore, if I felt I was treated unjustly and unfairly, I could always go to the court for redress.

Despite what employers say, everyone knows there is an antagonist relationship between employer and employees. While businesses proclaim they see the need for unions and they support them, that is simply not the case. The two sides are often at loggerheads when it comes to the company’s operation.

On the one hand, businesses abhor unions and will do everything in their power to dilute the power unions have over how the operation is run.

On the other hand, unions will do everything in their power to gain benefits for the workers, even some that may seem outlandish at first blush. Things like wages that are far above what others doing similar work in other companies are paid; and how much and when overtime should be paid. All important aspects of compensation, but for which unions had to fight hard over the years for their membership.

I never thought I would be a fan of unions but, in TT, in 2018, I now realise I was wrong. The change in my thinking was brought about by the closure of Petrotrin. The closure was precipitated by the company’s owners (the Government) making a decision to cease operations because it alleged the company was too heavily weighted with highly paid upper and middle managers.

No mention was made of the poor decision-making process by the board of directors that saw the company make poor investment choices in equipment and personnel over the years.

Because of the ineptness by the board, the ones who will suffer the most will be the thousands of laid-off workers, all of them protected by a union agreement that does not seem to do them any good. After all, if the board cannot run the company in order to make a profit, there is no point in keeping the doors open, is there?

While the refinery can easily make a profit going forward, the problem, according to the CEO and his so-called experts, is the bullet payment due next year. A payment that was caused by poor investments in shady deals that occurred years previously.

This bullet payment – and other poor management decisions by the board – has no bearing on the viability or the future operation of the company. Those payments were due to choices made by the directors. They made the wrong decisions, and they alone should be the ones to suffer the consequences.

The Government will still owe the bullet payment whether the company stays open or closes its doors. That should not be part of the consideration when determining whether the company is viable going forward. Isn’t that, in effect, what the Government has done when it formed the two new companies from the ashes of Petrotrin? The companies weren’t immediately saddled with Petrotrin’s debts – those are still the debts of the soon to be defunct Petrotrin and the taxpayers.

However, we are not dealing with a fair system. On one side we have the company, the Government, their highly paid legal teams, and ostensibly the people of TT (the owners of all state enterprises). On the other side we have the Petrotrin employees, the trade union, and their lawyers.

It appears patently unfair for the entire nation of some 1.3 million citizens to be against 5,000 workers. But that is how the Government and its side is couching the discussion. If, they argue, they do not close the refinery, the entire economy will be at risk and the entire nation will suffer. The reality is that we the people still owe the debts of Petrotrin.

The fundamental question that the court should consider as it decides on the merits of the case before them is: if the slate is wiped clean, and the union is allowed to take over the refinery, can Petrotrin become a viable operation under the union’s management and ownership? If it can, then we can immediately eliminate the drain that the company will become on the economy if it is allowed to close down.

If the transfer of the Petrotrin ownership to the union works as the union proposes, and becomes a successful enterprise without any taxpayers’ fiscal input, then it can be used as a yardstick for the other state enterprises that have been a drain on the public’s purse for much too long.

We could save billions of dollars if the likes of WASA, CAL, T&TEC etc could all become union/employee-owned which would give workers and management skin in the game and force the companies to become efficient engines of commerce that either make a profit or are sold to someone who will.

Based of the behaviour of this administration and its union-busting crusade, I have now changed my views on the vital necessity of having unions in the 21st century. The board of Petrotrin, the administration, and their highly paid legal team are using all the legal manoeuvring they can muster to cast this as the survival of the nation and the people against the greedy workers and their trade unions.

Or is it simply a case of the current administration being in a fight for survival as the election season bears down on it? As we all know, in elections all bets are off, and so are the gloves.

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