THIS BOLD experiment that aims to “let those who labour hold the reins,” catapults little TT into the centre of what is perhaps the greatest economic debate of the 21st century – how to reform capitalism to remove or manage its intrinsic tendency to create unequal societies?
It’s the central topic of all the debates governing economic policies and elections in major countries. It is the great divide between populists of the right and of the left; between the increasing wealth and power of the one percenters who own and control more than 40 per cent of the world’s wealth, and the dwindling economic status of the middle class and the poor, even in the rich countries of the North.
It would be to our eternal credit if little TT could find a workable model for a more egalitarian economic system.
We could accept that the world Marxist/communist/socialist experiment has largely failed. The two largest communist nations, the Soviet Union and China, have both abandoned the economic model of – “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
The Soviet Union, now a much smaller Russia, has been transformed into a floundering capitalist society that is dominated by the new oligarchs. China in just about 40 years has become the second largest capitalist economy in the world, reputedly with as many millionaire citizens as the entire population of the US – over 300 million.
But both governments have steadfastly retained the authoritarian governance models that have been the hallmark of the various socialist revolutions. Both seem to have imperialist world dominance ambitions that may not be much different from the old European imperialists.
All that is left are a few stumbling holdouts like Cuba and more lately Venezuela. I believe that these, too, would have self- transformed but for the heavy-handed interference of America and its allies.
However, not much attention seems to have been paid by academics, as well as political and economics commentators, to the reality that many of the less radical socialist ideas have already been absorbed into state welfare systems in Europe, America and elsewhere; countries that are considered to be the bastions of capitalism. This includes TT and the Caribbean.
The truth is, most if not all of these welfare reforms were hard-won through the agitation of militant trade unions and their related labour leaning political parties.
The struggles are continuing. One has only to follow the news, international and local. Here in TT we continue to live with the antagonistic platform exchanges, continuous strikes and strike threats, drawn-out labour negotiations, and repeated failed attempts at setting up a tripartite council of labour, business and government as a vehicle for negotiating peaceful solutions.
Why is this experiment of great importance?
The OWTU, having failed to prevent the State from closing the ageing debt-ridden Petrotrin refinery, responded to a state promise of favourable consideration of a union offer and submitted a competitive offer to the international bidding process, and is now the preferred bidder to acquire the assets of and reopen the Petrotrin refinery.
The union has realised the power of its conviction as expressed in the international labour movement’s anthem that “those who labour” have the ability to “take the reins” of the failed state-run enterprise and turn it into a financial success. The union’s detailed financial and operational plans are still to be presented for approval by the State.
The traditional reality of the management/shareholder and union relationship has been generally antagonistic, confrontational and marked by constant tension caused by different objectives and expectations.
Unions constantly agitate for higher wages, improved working conditions and job security. On the other hand management and shareholders usually are primarily concerned with positive financial results as represented by dividends and improved shareholder value. Cost-cutting and containment are always top of the management mindset.
As the new sole owner or major shareholder, the OWTU must now find and manage the delicate but dynamic divide between profitability, financial stability, workers’ expectations, with national aspirations thrown in for good measure. After all, is we refinery.
If the OWTU and its membership with the help of the Government and the national community could accomplish this difficult but not impossible mission in the coming years, TT could become the envy of other far larger and more advanced societies that are grappling with similar problems. Our small size may very well prove to be an advantage.
What are some probable hurdles, and what is required for the success of this bold venture?
* Uncertainty about the future of the petroleum industry, fuelled by international responses to climate change and the increasing impetus to replace hydrocarbon products may prove to be the preeminent hurdle to cross for long-term sustainability.
* TT is a mature petroleum economy and may not be able to continue to compete as newer producers and more modern, efficient refineries enter the market.
* Will current and future OWTU management be able to switch thinking and comfortably balance their different roles as shareholders, workers’ representative and keeper/manager of an important national patrimony.
* Will the national community accept the responsibility to be an active participant in this bold experiment?
* Will citizens be willing to participate as an act of faith in share ownership plans that may be launched to raise local capital?
The more local capital that we can raise, the less the company will be forced to depend on unsympathetic foreign capital markets that are dominated by the brokers and manipulators of capital solely for profit.
* Will state, union and national community be able to find and operate in conditions of unconditional trust and transparency?
If the patriot experiment fails it must not be because of a lack of commitment by our national community. When it succeeds, as we hope it would, it must be because of the national commitment and efforts of all our citizens.
I am enthused that the exigencies of our time and the urgency of our needs will propel the national unity spirit that is required to make the aptly named Patriotic Energies and Technologies Ltd venture a national success story.