Left to right: Trade Union leaders- Kertiste Augustus; Celia Nicholas; Thomas Letang and Bernard Nicholas (DTU)
Left to right: Trade Union leaders- Kertiste Augustus; Celia Nicholas; Thomas Letang and Bernard Nicholas (DTU)

Two events over the past year will have significant impacts on the trade union movement in Dominica in the near future.

First, Hurricane Maria and the rampant looting of private sector businesses that followed the ravages of that mega- storm has left hundreds, even thousands, of members of trade unions without homes, without jobs, without employers and, most importantly, without much an economy.

Consequently, we are still amazed that leaders of trade unions in Dominica have been so very lukewarm about the week-long post -Maria widespread looting. In addition, the unions have been perfectly silent over government's couldn't-care-less attitude to the request from the private sector for an independent inquiry into the breakdown of law and order after the storm. Trade unions, are you asleep? Are you aware that the social, economic and political circumstances in Dominica have changed considerably?

Second, Celia Nicholas has retired after nearly two decades at the helm of the Dominica Association of Teachers (DAT) and a major force in the trade union movement in Dominica. She did not seek reelection when the DAT held their annual general meeting about two weeks ago. Farewell, Mrs. Nicholas.

Nicholas, nearly everyone will agree, was such a force in the DAT that some people wondered whether the DAT could survive without her. It was also difficult to envisage the formation of the absolutely necessary trade union congress if Celia Nicholas was against it.

Undoubtedly, Nicholas had a profound impact on the DAT and especially on negotiations for better working conditions for teachers. Some observers are still debating whether her good relations with the Roosevelt Skerrit administration was an advantage or a hindrance.

But maybe, with the departure of Celia Nicholas, the relationship between the DAT and the larger Dominica Public Service Union (DPSU) will improve since over the past few years the DAT and the DPSU have been at loggerheads over the perceived encroachment into each other's territory.

Nevertheless, as the trade union movement in Dominica prepares for the observance of another May Day (on 7th May 2018) we hope the dismal conditions in Dominica after Hurricane Maria will influence trade union leaders to come together for the benefit of their members.

For an institution whose motto is "unity is strength", the heads of the Dominica trade union movement seem resolved on promoting their idea that "divided we stand … so let's fight for the small pieces of cake."

So as Labour Day 2018 approaches, we have another opportunity for serious re-flection 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, mostly negative, 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. Remember Karl Marx's famous statement? "Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains".

On May Day during that period, workers used that day to contemplate the gains that their ancestors achieved during the period, from the abolition of slavery to the attainment of political independence. But today, younger workers no longer have enthusiasm for collective bargaining and generally they do not comprehend the import of May Day. Many youth believe 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". It is sewo time again.

In fact, our response to May Day is so indifferent that last year, before the Hurricane, the Dominica Labour Party government (ironically a political party formed by E.C Loblack and Shand Alfrey to champion the rights of poor workers) planned and implemented the official opening of the Roseau West Bridge, on May Day, with apparent negligible concern that the distraction would have had a negative impact on the observance of worker's day, May Day. It had; but again most union leaders stayed rather silent.

But the decline in the strength of trade unions is not a Dominica, or a Caribbean phenomenon. It is worldwide. You may recall that former 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. Thatcher's sentiments are still very much in vogue today especially among members of the private sector.

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 has 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 to 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.

We strongly suggest that discussion on the formation of that congress should occupy a large part of May Day 2018 because it is the best defence against the tide of change that unions are being forced to swim against today.