STATE OF THE UNIONSJuly 05, 2000
By Terry Joseph
The truly sad thing about the fish-market style brouhaha into which last Saturday’s attempt to elect a new Natuc executive degenerated, is that the umbrella body was actually created to deliver exactly the opposite quality of relationship between trade unions.
The National Trade Union Centre (Natuc) was formed on June 12, 1991 and lofty speeches laid on by its president led us to believe then that it would provide a united front for the local labour movement; with a view to effecting equilibrium in the distribution of national wealth. It was a most noble pursuit, a marriage designed to bring together three major groups of labour organisations. Prior to the wedding there were the highly vocal Trinidad and Tobago Labour Congress and the Council of Progressive Trade Unions, who publicly and frequently aired sharp differences of opinion. In addition, the heavily subscribed Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association, the massive All Trinidad Sugar and General Workers Trade Union (and others) hitherto unaffiliated to either of the two more visible groups, were now committing to the new umbrella body.
Labour must have danced well into the night, thinking that it had finally developed a collective intellectual response to the ravages of unconscionable employers. Natuc could now act as consultant to member unions, helping them to formulate irrefutable arguments for use during the negotiation of new industrial agreements and other matters affecting the workforces they represented; rather than presenting the other side with mere noise and threats. The body could also represent Trinidad and Tobago as a single voice at international trade union gatherings. But the Natuc promise was never easy to deliver. Conflicts of philosophy remained unresolved. Butlerism was up against futurism and political affiliation only helped to widen the cracks. When elections for executive positions, constitutionally due in 1995 failed to take place, the rift went public.
Errol Mc Leod, Natuc’s first president, the only position limited by the constitution to not more than two consecutive two-year terms in office, stayed in the chair for all of nine years. After being interim president for two years, he was then elected, took four years before calling the first “biennial” conference, then rallied for another three before convening last Saturday’s sitting. Meanwhile, the president of one of Natuc’s member unions, Basdeo Panday, became Prime Minister, after his United National Congress joined with the National Alliance for Reconstruction to form the new government in 1995; even though the latter a party was widely perceived as having greater sympathy with the business lobby.
One faction of Natuc soon began accusing that the other of advising its membership to avoid strikes, as a way of reducing potential pressure on the government. On Sunday, in an attempt to rationalise his behaviour at the election the night before, Mc Leod pointed a finger at political affiliation as part of the reason for his grouse. But whatever the level of anxiety Mc Leod experienced on recognising that his slate at Saturday’s election was not about to do as well as he predicted, it is unpardonable that he should have felt it necessary to chase his comrades out of the building and scuttle the poll. The only thing that his conduct has so far achieved, is a strengthening of existing misconceptions about the way in which labour leaders handle conflict resolution.
To have refused to sign paychecks overdue to Natuc workers and send them to the president elect on Monday further exacerbates the problem and paints him as a petulant leader. The move bordered on a mischief. Mc Leod must know that, until the new president is installed, his signature means nothing to the bank. So the very workers whom he swears to defend would have been left without their June salaries, were it not for the magnanimity of the National Union of Government and Federated Workers, who paid them pending resolution of that matter.
Mc Leod must see himself as an elder statesman in the labour movement and act in a fashion reflective of that status. His statements and moves must be geared toward a dismantling of the view that he brooks no contrary opinions. The demise of his vice president Cecil Paul and dismissal of union officials who attempted to investigate queries from a Tobago poll that helped to return him to the helm of the Oilfields Workers Trade Union have not helped in that regard.
Today’s meeting, proposed by Natuc president-elect Robert Giuseppi in consultation with several other unions, is an opportunity for healing. Giuseppi plans to suggest a continuation of the election, an idea that will need support from Mc Leod. If that embrace is not forthcoming, then the Natuc members must consider the tried and tested route of an interfaith service that will bring them together – at least in spirit. Because after last Saturday’s performance by senior labour leaders, indeed it seems that only God can help the working class.
Terry-J at I-Level