CONSISTENT with her characteristic words of wisdom, President Paula-Mae Weekes, in her recent Labour Day message to the nation, entreated employers to “reimagine and re-engineer the way they approach labour relations.” Private and public sector employers should be held to account in heeding this advice. To do otherwise will be at the nation’s peril.
The President went on to say, “It should be clear by now that the adversarial processes used on both sides of the labour divide…cannot be sustained in this new, ever-changing environment.”
She advised employers “to operate differently…being empathetic to the concerns and conditions of their employees” (my emphasis). Trinidad and Tobago should be heartened by the President’s exhortations.
Traditionally, it has been an incomprehensible practice for employers to sit back and await the initiatives of labour unions to submit proposals for revised terms and conditions of employment for their employees. The logic is questionable. It is bereft of the spirit of drive and altruism and akin to a cop-out.
This seemingly laid-back stance by employers gives rise to pertinent questions: Whose employees are these: the unions’ or the employers’? Who should honourably take the lead in updating the terms and conditions of employment of their institutions’ employees: the union or the employer? Who benefits most when employers take the lead in displaying interest in the overall welfare and well-being of employees: the union or the employer? Who knows most about the employer’s capacity, or lack thereof, to enhance their employees’ terms and conditions of employment: the union or the employer? Why do employers default leadership to the unions in such an important employee relations initiative?
The President is right. The time for employers’ introspection in labour relations is long overdue. Employers must shoulder their responsibility: take the lead in proposing revised terms and conditions of engagement for consideration by those whom they employ; take their employees into their confidence whatever the constraints. In short, proposals for revised terms and conditions must originate from the employer.
The rationale is patently clear. Employers are excessively more au courant with the intricacies of their specific entities, more in tune with their institution’s vision for the future and have ready access to up-to-date empirical, industry specific and corporate information, trends and projections.
Let me hasten to dispel any notion that this paradigm shift will undervalue or undermine the essential role which unions intrinsically discharge in this critical undertaking. On the contrary, the re-engineering is designed to create the enabling environment for enrichment of the negotiations process. It sets the stage for both the employer and the union to become mutually and positively proactive in pursuing the best interests of all stakeholders. It lies in making a fundamental cultural modification in the way in which negotiations for revised terms and conditions are currently conducted and, moreover, for enhancing the quality and tone of industrial relations practice in TT.
Let’s face it, aggressiveness and militancy no longer serve any useful purpose. They are unproductive, demeaning and downright outdated – remnants of the distant colonial past. The people have had their fill. Tact, diplomacy, mutual understanding and creativity are the order of the day. Negotiating parties need to be upfront, forthright and open with each other – objective, realistic and genuine, leaving little or no room for gamesmanship, speculation and wild assumptions.
The employer’s proposal should take the form of a live presentation to the employees’ representatives, much like a multimedia presentation. It should be comprehensive, laying out data-driven justification for arriving at the proposed revised terms and conditions. This will afford the opportunity for real-time interaction between the parties to seek clarification and further information in an atmosphere of consultation, collaboration, co-operation, congeniality, cordiality and, above all, goodwill.
The union will then be in a much more informed position to study the employer’s proposals having gained the benefit of relevant data, clarifications, additional information and the justifications advanced during deliberations on the employer’s multimedia presentation. As a consequence, the union can realistically be expected to present its counter proposals in like manner – live – to the employer, inclusive of all the related counter arguments, other relevant data and appropriate justifications. If necessary or helpful, the union should propose implementation strategies to accommodate its counter proposals to the mutual benefit of all stakeholders.
The employer is then given adequate time to study the union’s counter proposals following which both parties can now sit around the table, each adequately endowed with the fullness of information, to arrive at mutual understanding among themselves, all while maintaining the spirit of consultation, collaboration and co-operation within an environment of peace, harmony and objectivity until an acceptable level of consensus is achieved.
Roy Mitchell is the former special adviser to the National Tripartite Advisory Council (NTAC) and management and communications adviser to the former minister of labour and small enterprise development, then senator Jennifer Baptiste-Primus