Trade Unions: Are They Dead?
The death and burial last week of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher should have 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 two weeks ago 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 is the recently concluded 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 represent teachers and while the larger and apparently more powerful DPSU was demanding a higher level of increase from Government, the other unions seem to have folded up, seemingly without a whimper.
Nonetheless, the on-going recession has made the union's demand for better wages almost redundant. 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.
Additionally, unions in the Caribbean face new challenges with the implementation of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME). In a lecture delivered a few years ago to a Delegates Congress of the Caribbean Congress of Labour on "The Role of Labour in Promoting the CSME", Barbados' former Prime Minister Owen Arthur stated that the CSME should force unions to re-examine their structures and recruitment strategies. Arthur was of the view that this renewal will no doubt involve the adoption of more indirect modes of representation set within the context of a more vital role for the Labour Movement in the effective functioning of the CSME.
This suggests that trade unions must endeavour to speak to each other much more earnestly than in the past as they navigate this increasingly hostile 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 urgently inject life into their moribund education programmes.
To Dominica's workers, happy May Day 2013!