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The late trade unionist Desmond Bishop: Skillful negotiator in Black Power era
Desmond Bishop, the former president and general secretary of the Transport Industrial Workers’ Union (TIWU), who was known to be one of the leading and more skillful negotiators after the hype of the civil unrest in the 1970s and during major labour issues and struggles until 2000, died on December 20, 2012. He was 77.
Bishop’s career began in the union just two years after the 1970 Black Power revolution, where many were fighting for socio-political change. It was the era when the dominant cultural ideology was primarily founded on an European model and was perceived as the sidelining of the Africans in favour of the whites and other races. After the revolution, this national sense of heightened consciousness gave strength to trade unions at the time to continue their fight for the working class. TIWU and the Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU) were among the popular and more militant unions during this era.
Providing a snapshot of industrial climate during Bishop’s tenure, Aldwyn Brewster, a former president of TIWU, who served with Bishop, wore several hats and was very successful in bringing many employees into the union; a challenging task in those times, Brewster said.
Brewster said it was the era when then Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams introduced the Industrial Stabilisation Act 1965 (ISA), which banned unions from free protests in the streets. Brewster said Williams found there were too many strikes in the country and his administration feared the threat of being overthrown. Brewster said the ISA legislation was met with much resistance and unionists protested against it because they felt it took away workers’ rights and reminded them of slavery.
The introduction of the ISA meant all negotiations and grievances had to be settled in the court. The law later changed to Industrial Relations Act, where unions once again had the opportunity to strike once they followed the process of requesting permission from the Ministry of Labour, but only regarding negotiations and renewal of collective agreements. Unions also could not obtain recognition in more than one essential service or industry, explained Brewster, 70.
He said Bishop joined TIWU while he was a monthly-paid clerk at Tracmac Engineering Ltd in 1972, where he led many Tracmac employees into the union.
He said Bishop became acting general secretary in 1973 under the stewardship of former president Joe Young, a founding member of TIWU, who died in October 2012 at the age of 80.
“Many of the workers in the union were hourly and daily paid, but rarely monthly paid. However, Bishop succeeded in getting more than 51 per cent of the workers, including monthly paid, to join the union.
I believe being part of the oppression and the struggle motivated him to make this move and join the union. It was a desire and a passion that came from within.”
He said Bishop made many breakthroughs during the 1970s and ‘80s as public servants were working 44 hours a week, including Saturdays at monthly wages of $300-$400, but were deprived of overtime pay, maternity leave and paid vacation or sick leave.
Brewster noted that in the 1970s, most of the workers were unskilled and working in a factory or assembly plant at a rate of 75 cents an hour.
“Bishop was very instrumental in negotiating for some of these issues, including wage increases, maternity, bereavement, sick leave and cost of living allowances for several companies, including Furness Limestone and Bata Shoe Store.
He led a major strike protest with Public Transport Service Corporation (PTSC) in the 1980s where he was very successful in those wage negotiations. He also fought on other issues, including employee grievances.
Brewster said the trade union movement has changed because society changed. The unions were more militant in those days, the struggle was greater and members had the passion to fight for change.
In today’s climate, he recommended that unions should be pushing for better medical and pension plans for employees, especially in the private sector.
Current TIWU president Roland Sutherland said Bishop would be remembered for his invaluable contribution and excellent negotiating skills.
Sutherland said Bishop was key in the Neal and Massy wage negotiations, PTSC in the 1980s and the National Maintenance Training and Security Company Ltd (MTS) in the 1990s.
Describing him as a stalwart, Sutherland said his vast contributions were not limited to negotiating wages, but in the development of TIWU, where he was instrumental in making the union financially sound, and the construction of TIWU’s head office on the Eastern Main Road, Laventille.
The post of general secretary was a huge responsibility, which Bishop was excellent at, Sutherland said.
“He would be remembered mainly for his fearlessness and high competence, which extended beyond his position as general secretary into an excellent wage negotiator.
Bishop was a very serious man.
“He was not the type to compromise values and principles. If you did something wrong, he did not hesitate to bring you before the executives,” Sutherland said.
Bishop also served at TIWU with Industrial Court judge Albert Aberdeen.
After becoming the acting general secretary in 1973, Bishop was elected second vice president in 1975, and climbed the ladder to first vice president in 1981. In 1984, he became president and served in that position until 1987, at which point he returned to the role of general secretary until his retirement in 2000.
Judith Charles, who succeeded Bishop, said, “Even though I was not a full officer at the time, we had a good relationship. I missed the opportunity to get his nurturing. He was very instrumental and effective in running the affairs of the union and I hope I could continue in that vein.”
Charles described Bishop as a matter-of-fact person, but quiet and reserved.
Bishop’s wealth of knowledge and expertise regarding industrial relations provided an opportunity for him to become one of the directors on the MTS board around 1995/1996, while he was still general secretary at TIWU.
Terrance Kalloo, who was MTS chief executive officer in 2000, explained that the then Basdeo Panday-led UNC Government felt that each state board should have union representation in order for the union to gain a better understanding of the affairs and management of companies.
Prior to being prime minister, Panday was the president of the All Trinidad Sugar and General Workers’ Union from 1973. Bishop was a director between 1996-1999 and after became special adviser to Kalloo from 2000-2001.
Based on reports, union members sitting on boards was a new ideology which did not gain much approval at the time.
There were mixed views. It was met with similar reactions when the Movement for Social Justice, a union-led political party joined forces with the People’s Partnership partnership in the 2010 general election. Some people viewed this move as a sellout to the working class.
Kalloo explained that being on the board did not prevent Bishop from fighting for employees’ rights.
“As a matter of fact, he was quite vocal and he came on board to ensure the union had proper representation. He never missed a single board meeting where all human resources issues were aired.”
Kalloo said he believed the issues would not have gotten the attention they deserved without union representation.
Bishop fought and stamped out a lot of inequity in the employment and working practices in MTS, for example, gender inequality. He ensured employees received proper working conditions and was instrumental in having several employees confirmed in their posts after acting for many years, Brewster said.
“He brought a humane face to the organisation and never turned his back on the grassroots employees.”
Kalloo said Bishop being an adviser was invaluable.
“I learnt a tremendous amount from him. I hadn’t much knowledge of industrial relations at the time. He was very wise and quite knowledgeable in the field. I used to consult with him on other issues outside of industrial relations. He was ethically sound and a man of integrity who never once ask me for a favour in return.
The company enjoyed a very good relationship with the union during his tenure and this has continued to this day.
Kalloo said Bishop was a gentleman and scholar who possessed all the patience in the world, but was always candid.
“He never hesitated to tell me I was going in the wrong direction. He will be missed. I was saddened to hear of his passing.”