THE RECENT statements by the President of the Grenada Senate, Chester Humphrey, should serve as a wake-up call to the trade union movement in the region.
In a recent newspaper article, he essentially expressed the view that trade unions are in danger of becoming irrelevant and possibly extinct if they do not take urgent steps to revitalise their relevance in a new geopolitical and economic global order.
He opined that trade unions in the region have been characterised by division within their own ranks, with political alignments and allegiances forming the basis for membership marginalisation, apathy and indifference.
Membership continues to wane as union leadership espouses a modus operandi that has become discordant with current social, political and economic realities. He lamented the extent to which trade unions’ internal democracy has weakened, with some also lacking in internal accountability.
As international capital becomes increasingly consolidated and businesses are growing, he pointed to the continuing mass alienation of the products of one’s labour on an unprecedented scale. Conversely, labour’s response to this development has been characterised by division, infighting and disconnect with the informal sector.
Humphrey further pointed out that while there has been a steady decline in the influence of the trade union movement across the region, there has been an expansion in precarious work and personalised contracts of employment with a consequent diminution of collective bargaining rights and decent work. The persistence of an antiquated approach to the promotion and defence of worker rights has resulted in trade unions being unable to execute a transformative role.
As we look toward the celebrations marking the significant contribution of the labour movement to the growth and development of the society, it would be useful for all trade unions to take a deeper look at themselves vis-a-vis their role in national development and their internal democratic structures.
The growing global trend of mega corporations that span national boundaries are increasingly seeing workers as property to be owned and disposed of at their whim and fancy. The replacement of workers with artificial intelligence is the new reality. Fixed working hours have been overwhelmed with concepts of “working smart” and virtual offices via the use of communication technology.
Unions must now question their position to challenge this reality. With the courts being bombarded by politicians and capitalist forces to roll back worker rights that were won through hard-fought battles, and the average young worker entering the workforce taking current worker rights for granted, unions must rise to a new norm of national advocacy, education and solidarity. This is not an option but an imperative for continued relevance and survival.
The role of trade unions in shaping the future society we desire must be placed high on the trade union agenda, along with the critical role they must play in the promotion of democracy. The fight for equity and social justice has become even more critical given the concentration and accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few. Union visibility and prominence characterised by current relevance must define our daily existence.
Chester Humphrey is not the only one sounding the alarm bell. From the International Labour Organization to Public Service International and Education International, these messages have been echoing throughout the trade union fraternity.
Trade unions have virtually found themselves with their backs against the proverbial wall. The only way forward is strong solidarity in collective purpose. Consolidation of limited resources must take place to educate members and the society at large that unions are not the enemy as per consistent negative messaging of the employer class.
Demonisation of trade unions and their leaders must be countenanced by reminders of the critical role played by trade unions in the past decades in the creation of democratic societies.
Union leaders must understand that the power they wield must be used judiciously and responsibly at all times, for to a large extent it defines the union. As the voice of the people their ears must consistently be in tune with the feelings of the membership and corresponding arrangements must be enshrined in their operational structure to give voice to those at the base.
The decorum, mannerism and capacity to articulate strong, consistent and reasoned union positions on a range of worker issues as well as matters of national importance will, to a large extent, define the perception of the union. When young workers question the relevance or capacity of trade unions to advance their cause as citizens, that is an ominous sign we can’t ignore.