Should Trade Unions in Dominica Rest in Peace?
When British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died three years ago her passing reminded most of us of the turbulent Seventies when trade unions literally ruled the world.
One may recall Thatcher saying after she had won a significant battle against the militant unions that she had "tamed" them, as if British unions were wild blood-thirsty beasts. Thatcher believed then that powerful trade unions frustrated innovative ideas for improving productivity and that antiquated labour laws and practices stifled the growth of the private sector.
To domesticate the unions, Thatcher's Conservative Party adopted a systematic programme aimed at undermining the power of trade union leaders who, more often than not, were politically motivated. Thatcher's reforms were remorseless. She changed the closed shop system which were essentially forcing people to join unions; she introduced the use of secret ballots, instead of a show of hands at union meetings when members were voting to take industrial action; she made it illegal for unions to extend their disputes to any other business other than their members' employers; she abolished the check-off system whereby employers were obliged to deduct union dues from wages and salaries automatically. These measures crippled the power of trade unions and, eventually, membership declined dramatically. For example, over a 20 year period trade unions in Britain lost millions of members; by 1996 union membership had shrunk to less than 6 million and the number of unions decreased from 456 to 233. Millions felt the social and economic pressure that has reverberated to today. So when Thatcher died her so-called "victims" took to the streets drinking champagne and shouting gleefully, "Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Dead! Dead! Dead!"
The demise of trade unions in Britain during the Thatcher era may have been severe and extraordinary. But trade unions have also been in decline in Dominica, the other islands of the Caribbean as well as the rest of the world including the United States of America, Israel, France, Argentina, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. By 1997, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) reported that union membership had declined by as much as 45 percent in some countries.
Globalisation, one of the main culprits for the worldwide decline of unions, has been described as the increasing integration of the world's peoples and nations brought about by expanded international flows of trade, investment, labour, capital, knowledge and information. That phenomenon may have caused the reduction of the cost of production but at the same time labour unions have suffered considerably.
In Dominica's case, mass migration, high unemployment and the on-going financial and economic crisis have decimated trade unions' membership and also their effectiveness. Additionally, changes in attitudes among the working population have made unions appear to be toothless tigers, especially over the course of the last thirty years. Hence, the industrial relations climate is increasingly fragmented. A notable example of this division was the 2014 negotiations between the Government of Dominica and the Public Service Union (DPSU), the Association of Teachers (DAT) and the Police Welfare Association (PWA). Both the DPSU and the DAT represented teachers and while the larger and apparently more powerful DPSU was demanding a higher level of increase from Government, the other unions seemed to have folded up, seemingly without a whimper.
Nonetheless, the on-going never-ending recession has made the union's demand for better wages almost redundant. Who wants to ask for better pay when there are so few jobs? Unions have become rather submissive because their members have been subdued by fears of losing jobs, houses, pensions and other benefits.
Nowadays workers willingly accept increasing pressure from employers, longer and unsocial hours as well as poor working conditions and the toothless unions can neither bark nor bite. A trade unionist said recently that political divisiveness among members of unions are preventing workers from taking action in their own interest if that action will hurt their party. He gave Public Works as an example.
Union leaders do not disagree that trade unions are facing their most difficult period in decades. For instance Secretary-Treasurer of the Waterfront and Allied Workers' Union (WAWU) Kertiste Augustus and General Secretary of the Dominica Public Service Union (DPSU) Thomas Letang have expressed "disappointment" at the state of the unions in Dominica although both say that they are collaborating on a number of issues regarding workers' rights.
There are five trade unions in Dominica; among them are the Dominica Amalgamated Workers' Union (DAWU), the Dominica Trade Union (DTU) and Dominica Waterfront & Allied Workers' Union (WAWU) and the Dominica Public Service Union (DPSU). There are also the Dominica Association of Teachers and the Police Welfare Association.
All the unions that we listed above say they acknowledge the obvious benefits of forming a Trade Union Congress in Dominica but the formation of that body has eluded local trade unions for the past thirty years.
Letang says boldly that the working classes of the country want a trade union congress and much work has been done including the drafting of a constitution. But trade unions whose life blood is unity among members are being kept apart by politics and selfish persons at the top of the trade union hierarchy.
But the current crisis facing trade unions suggests that their leaders must endeavour to speak to each other much more earnestly than in the past as they navigate this increasingly hostile economic environment. As an industrial relations expert suggested recently, "unions must now get back to basics", reconnect with members and work along with employers to increase production and productivity.
Most importantly, unions must understand that unless they come together they will rest in peace alone.