By Raffique Shah
September 12, 2018
I was not surprised when the trade unions’ call for the workers of the country to stay at home and observe a day of “rest and reflection” last Friday failed miserably. What was intended to be a general strike by whatever name labour leaders chose to label it, turned out to be a near-unanimous rejection of their insensitivity to the country’s economic crisis. Workers put their own job security and the national interest before the recklessness of a handful of unionists.
The population’s rejection of unionists who seem to be living in an era long gone should, however, bring little comfort to the Keith Rowley-led Government. It was not a vote of confidence in the PNM or any other political party. Indeed, whatever little hope labour had for the strike’s success was scuttled when UNC leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar endorsed it on the eve of the declared date, and when dinosaurs of multiple-party-affiliations saw it politically expedient to ride the bandwagon, sealing its fate with a fatal kiss of death.
In other words, no labour or political entity came out victorious last Friday. It was a people’s victory that could prove to be powerful if only they know how to harness their power.
Organised labour suffered the severest blow, which was largely self-inflicted. Bear in mind the call for a general strike (my term, not theirs) on the third anniversary date of the Rowley regime coming to power was made long before the Petrotrin issue exploded with Government’s announcement of its decision to shut down the oil refinery.
The OWTU had long voiced its disappointment with Rowley’s failure to honour the terms of some Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) it had co-signed with the PNM in the run-up to the 2015 general election. Its break with the PNM was similar to that with the PP/UNC, with whom it had signed The Fyzabad Accord in 2010, which imploded within a year.
In both instances a few unions were intimately involved in post-elections governance. In both instances the falling out followed swiftly, although some key unionists clung to political office which they seemed to have fallen in love with (Rowley’s words), damn the unions they emerged from, damn the workers they claimed to have represented.
There will always be a core of militant workers who will carry on the struggle for their comrades to be treated in a just and equitable manner by their employers. But when their unions show disregard for the well-being of these stalwarts, put their jobs at risk as the leaders pursue dubious political agendas, then the workers will not heed their calls.
That is what happened last Friday. The workers are not fools. They saw leaders who routinely trade insults suddenly hugging each other, their daggers barely concealed, summoning their cannon-fodder to engage in a latter-day charge of the blind brigade, and they wonder what the hell is going on.
Sure, they have serious issues with their employers, both the State and the private sector. I wrote a few weeks ago about income inequality that is now considered high on the social and economic agendas of developed countries, and which is even more acute in developing countries.
This yawning gap between what can be deemed the aristocracy of the working class and the plebs, which is as disproportionate as that between the one percent and the rest of the people, was central to what happened—or did not happen—last Friday. The mass of public sector and other workers whose pay-cheques barely cover their survival needs, openly wondered why they should risk their families’ economic security by taking action in support of petroleum workers who gross three, four times what they make.
The OWTU leadership might not want to hear this, but many workers were questioning why they should strike in solidarity with those who have hardly ever taken similar action in support of their less fortunate comrades.
Now, I can personally attest to the tangible efforts this union made in support of the working class in general, certainly under the leadership of George Weekes. It was at the forefront of worker-education and resistance to anti-worker legislation, among other contributions, in the past.
But the skeptics who raised the issue of oil workers’ reluctance to take strong action in support of the wider working class do have a point.
Also, for all the arrogance that is characteristic of politicians holding office, Rowley, Colm Imbert and Franklyn Khan have presented a convincing case for the closure of the refinery and the retention and expansion of the exploration and production subsidiaries of Petrotrin. The OWTU has thus far failed to counter Government’s case with cogent alternatives, or by adducing evidence of outright lies.
Rowley has put his political career on the line over the Petrotrin issue—and he’d better believe it. The new-look Petrotrin, and all that flows from the closure of the refinery (smooth transition to imported fuels, profitable production operations that can at least repay the company’s huge debts) will either enhance his stature or wipe him off the political landscape.
The trade unions have also found themselves at critical crossroads following last Friday’s dismal failure to rally their members, far less win support from the wider public. I think that unions will always have an important place and participatory role in whatever social and economic order emerges from this crisis.
I am convinced, though, that some of the leaders are struggling past their expiry dates.