DRAMATIC changes to the labour market form the backdrop to today’s commemoration of Labour Day. The crisis in Venezuela has resulted in an influx of workers from that country, as well as a heightened discussion about worker productivity locally. Retrenchment is creating new challenges for employees. And reforms to policies and regulations when it comes to social justice issues require a re-examination of the tripartite co-operation between employers, trade unions and the State. All must be tackled headfirst by the labour movement if it is to remain relevant.
“Labour Day must not be seen and treated as just another holiday for a beach or river lime, nor should it only be for labour leaders to espouse political rhetoric, which, given our polarised political culture, does more to alienate workers,” noted the TT Unified Teachers’ Association (TTUTA) in a Newsday column last month. We agree.
Labour must do more than address its crippling division and seeming lack of focus. It must come to terms with a rapidly changing world, a world in which it can play a vital role. For example, the recently unveiled policy against sexual harassment presents an opportunity for the movement to engage in public education campaigns, training, advocacy, and support, all of which should be geared toward protecting workers.
Trade unions should move away from the old model in which they are only relevant when it comes to negotiating collective agreements. Labour has a vital role to play in reshaping protections for society and tempering the propensity of mercantile systems to make the interests of the individual subsidiary.
In the past, labour has been accused of being unpatriotic, and counterproductive to the needs of modern society. How can the movement address these concerns?
On the one hand, with each threat of a “national shutdown” there is fear of needless disruption. Such forms of protest, when they are implemented, in the end, seem to penalise and hold to ransom the general population in a way that is hard to reconcile with the ideals of the movement. On the other hand, shutdowns have often fizzled before they have begun. Labour has come to sound like a record repeating itself, an empty barrel making noise.
It would be good if the movement could reach a stage where bargaining over collective agreements becomes contemporaneous. The lagging of these talks has only worsened the myopic focus of the movement over the years.
Today we call on labour and its leaders to focus on bolstering democracy instead of re-enacting tired tropes. Such a revitalisation is urgently needed. As TTUTA remarked, “Given the global political landscape, the signs and threats to human rights and democracy are increasing at an alarming rate, and if we are not sufficiently vigilant, these hard-fought rights can be eroded in quick time.”