By Raffique Shah
June 20, 2022
It’s not so much that in a complex new world forged and driven by technology that comprises lightening-speed communications and incredible capacities for generating, processing, storing and distributing information that trade unions have been blindsided by microchips that could signal their demise.
Indeed, as my comrades make their way to Fyzabad today for the march and rally, they should feel proud to be part of an organisation that, during its 85-year history in Trinidad and Tobago, has, pound-for-pound, contributed more than any other toward the upliftment of the society. For people who have never participated in or attended the annual event, shame on you. I mean no insult when I say that you will brave storms and travel to Wah-he-oh-ho where alcohol and “wining” to sweet soca music are the only items that are on the agenda.
But you find ready excuses to ignore Labour Day at the southern town that was the stage for one of the epic battles in our history—Tubal Uriah Butler and the masses vs the colonial governor and British troops. You need to learn your history on any given day. But that special June 19 should mean something to you if you call yourself a “Trini”.
But I digress: I opened my column by pointing out that trade unions faced special challenges in today’s ever-changing world on new and newer technology, and that some leaders and their members could feel overwhelmed by the speed at which such changes occur, and the threats they posed to organised labour. Last week, on the eve of workers’ holiest day, several large businesses retrenched workers by the hundreds, their main reason being technology offered them cheaper, more efficient ways to run their shops.
I am not going to argue that in the name of saving jobs, we set aside technology that is ineluctably replacing manpower on the shop floors and in offices. It’s stupid to even try to halt progress. Just as the industrial revolution altered manufacturing in the mid-18th-19th centuries, so will information technology and related advances reconfigure new work-spaces.
Already, the surprise-attack on world health by the Covid virus, that brought the world almost to a standstill, showed how backward businesses, governments and, yes, trade unions were. That the worlds of work, education and commerce could function by those who labour, be it in offices or factories or classrooms, almost as efficiently as they had functioned by what were the “norms” before Covid: billions of people commuting to and from work stations at huge offices and plants, creating traffic nightmares that had etched themselves into our psyche to the extent that tranquillisers had become part of our work-equipment, few employers believed their employees could function just as well, if not better, from their bedrooms or kitchens, making life easier for the owners of capital, and for the wage-slaves who could work in pyjamas if they so chose.
Now, your humble, not-so-technology-savant servant, having grown absolutely fed up with commuter-traffic, had opted for a kind of semi-retirement mode since the turn of the century, which was fine-tuned to suit my editors and managers when I was adversely affected by a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease in 2012. By then, we had our modus operandi, deadlines et al, down to a science.
So when a pandemic was declared in 2020, and “lockdowns” became the norm, I could advise people on easy ways to work from home. Similarly, since I exited the world of the Trade Union Movement around 2003, I can see the bigger picture—the need for greater efficiencies, the benefit of pursuing retirement packages, governments no longer willing or needing to spend huge sums of money on the public sector—change was in the air.
As revenues from the energy sector slipped several times post-2000, and with few alternative options being feasible, increased wage and salary bills were in nobody’s best interest. My comrades in the trade union seem stuck on current pay packages, with which Government will find difficult to agree. There was simply too little on the revenue side and too much on the expenditure side.
My comrades seemed not to discern the healthy retirement benefit, health plans and other non-salary funds that could make workers’ lives beyond their workplaces healthier and happier. Indeed, in almost every instance, these very unions that are stuck on 0-0-2-0-3% salary increases over however many years’ bargaining time have long won for their members (civil services, public sector)benefits in health and retirement funds that are superior to most private sector agreements. Retirees from these arms of Government services and State enterprises boast of healthcare and pensions that would make managers in the private sector envious.
Government will hardly increase wages significantly, but working the suggestions I proffered above they may discover mechanisms to save their pride. Think about it.