Only a congress can revive trade unionism in Dominica
As Labour Day 2014 approaches, we have another opportunity for serious reflection on the significance of the event and an additional occasion to reassess the effectiveness of the trade union movement at this juncture of Dominica's development.
Most persons will readily admit that there have been some major changes over the past 30 years in trade unionism. In the Seventies, for example, Labour Day provided an opportunity for workers to celebrate their status as a newly organised work force and to savor their strength as effective and powerful collective-bargaining units.
But over the past three decades, the observance of Labour Day has been rather lukewarm as this important anniversary lost much of its meaning. Labour Day or May Day, as it is also called, is no longer an occasion for workers of the world to scream unite as they frequently did during the period when communism was at its zenith. On May Day during that period, workers used that day to contemplate the gains that their parents achieved during the period from the abolition of slavery to the attainment of political independence. But today, young workers no longer have enthusiasm for collective bargaining and generally they do not comprehend the import of the May Day. To many youth, May Day, observed in Dominica on the first Monday in May, is merely part of a long weekend during which matters pertaining to national productivity has to "chill out".
But the decline in the strength of trade unions is not a Caribbean phenomenon. It is worldwide. You may recall that late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said after she won a significant battle against the militant unions of the Seventies that she had "tamed" the unions as if they were creatures of the wild that had to be domesticated.
Similar declines in trade union strength and militancy occurred in countries such as the United States of America, Israel, France, Argentina, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. In 1997 the International Labour Organisation (ILO) reported that union membership had declined by as much as 45 percent in many countries. There are no current statistics to compare the loss of union membership in Dominica but anecdotal information indicates that that decline may be significant.
The experts suggest that globalization is one of the main causes of the decline of unions in the Caribbean, and world-wide for that matter. They suggest that this phenomenon has integrated the population of the world and expanded international flows of trade, investment, labour, capital, knowledge and information.
Improvements in technology, especially communication technology, have also accelerated the "globalization" of industries and the integration of markets. Since goods can be produced at low cost due to the availability of cheap labour in some areas of the world, jobs have been transferred to those areas of the globe. The transfer of these jobs have had a significant impact on the traditional mode of doing business in the region and has forced Caribbean businesses to implement measures to enable them can compete in the global economy. Subsequently, jobs were lost in all sectors of the economy. That change has had profound implications on the relationships between employees, employers and unions.
As unions' bargaining power weakened, they sought new ways to maintain influence. That new realism has forced them to seek new areas of partnership and to abandon the confrontational attitudes of the past. A poignant example of the decline in union power and militancy was the weak response of the Dominica Public Service Association to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) influenced structural adjustment programme of the Pierre Charles Administration a few years ago.
Nevertheless as the years progress, unions of the Caribbean are likely to face newer and tougher challenges with the emergence of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) and the implementation of the European Partnership Agreement (EPA). That is the view of, at least, one of the foremost proponents of the CSME.
In a speech in October 2004 delivered to the 15th Triennial Delegates Congress of the Caribbean Congress of Labour on the "Role of Labour in Promoting the CSME", Barbados' former Prime Minister Owen Arthur warned that the CSME will force unions to re-examine their structures and membership recruitment strategies.
Arthur was of the view that this renewal would undoubtedly involve the adoption of more indirect modes of representation which has to be implemented within the context of a more vital role for the labour movement in the creation and effective functioning of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy. He added that unions across the region must now adopt a more decisive role in changing workers attitude to the CSME.
The point is that the time has come for a new focus on the creation of a Trade Union Congress. The formation of that organisation has eluded the movement in Dominica for more than 30 years. We also suggest that discussion on the formation of that congress should occupy a large part of May Day 2014. If the workers of Dominica' trade unions cannot demand the formation of a congress from their leaders, whether the leaders want to create that congress or not, then as we say things are bad in trade unionism indeed.