Trade unions and the proverbial bone

THE EDITOR: In the excitement of an independence speech, Dr Eric Williams in 1962 declared that a country was set free and a state was established, but a society and a nation were not formed. Today his words focus powerfully on the state of industrial relations in TT – especially with respect to the rumbling of our trade unions.

As a result, I now wonder how many among us know how national income is distributed among citizens. Of course, economists will tell us that it is not only about wages and salaries but also a matter of how the factors of production – land, labour, capital, and enterprise (and time – according to some modern economists) are rewarded.

Listening to anti-government activists and rum shop talk, I further question if people understand that the rewards of public service workers are, to a great extent, determined by the depth and size of public service coffers; that if the economy is buoyant (as in the days of the oil boom), money will flow; that in hard times, it is only natural to expect less generosity. What is worse, workers can be retrenched, if unions are reckless in their demands.

Another consideration is the combined impact of the imperfections of the labour market and the actions of trade unions on the economy – especially when unions have the naive view that they can raise wages by bullying the employer irrespective of market forces.

This is why I argue that exaggerated wage claims can lead to a loss of unemployment for workers; that trade unions cannot influence wages and salaries unless they find a way to change the basic relationship between supply and demand. Note that in our country – for political reasons – our public sector labour force is usually padded.

Despite my concerns above, I must accept that to argue that unions have no power at all against the iron laws of the market system is untenable. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that basic economic forces do far more to determine labour’s share than do the noise of the unions.

The main function of the unions, we may then conclude, should lie in modifying the wage structure; and helping to raise the bargaining power of weak groups of workers to prevent them from lagging behind the others.

Finally, I come to my main concern, with Dr Eric Williams’s words in mind. Yes! We also have to accept that to pursue a path of plenty for unionised workers and not care for the many who enjoy nothing can seriously lead to social explosion and self-destruct behaviour.

Unions, therefore, must insist on a unified, rational and well thought-out strategy when seeking workers’ interest. They should not put at risk the bone in the grip of the mouth for the one reflected in the water of myopia.




"Trade unions and the proverbial bone"

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