You are here

THE TRUTH ABOUT TRADE UNIONS

Published: 
Sunday, January 8, 2017

Kevin Baldeosingh

Trade unions do not care about workers. Trade unions only care about their workers—ie, the employees who are dues-paying members. After all, without those dues trade union leaders could not afford their capitalist lifestyles. And, because of this, trade unions are actually harmful to the majority of the working class, since most employees are not unionised.

As the most powerful trade union in T&T, the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union is the most pernicious entity in respect to workers’ progress. That is why OWTU leader Ancel Roget has tried so hard to portray strike action as beneficial to all workers and even the country. But, of course, if there is any group of workers who can afford—literally—a zero-zero-zero wage offer in this recession, it is Petrotrin employees. They are, after all, the most highly paid workers in the country, with each category earning between one-third to five times more than the salaries of equivalent employees in other sectors of the economy.

This is a side effect of the resource curse. Because T&T has a state-owned company earning oil revenues, wage levels at Petrotrin has forced employers in other sectors to also offer salary levels above what may be deemed fiscally prudent. The overall effect has been to hamper the country’s economic development. After all, if potential entrepreneurs find that they can get high returns from merely importing goods, then why should they exert themselves to be more innovative?

To be sure, in most countries it is standard rhetoric for trade unions to portray employees as oppressed, employers as oppressors, and the union leaders as selfless champions seeking only the wider good. Such assertions are at best half-truths, but have particular resonance in this former colony which attained Independence (but not independence) through demonising the former ruling/employer class. That is why not many people know that racism was one of the roots of the trade union movement.

“The ability to prevent a less-preferred worker from accepting a lower wage is one of the most effective tools in the arsenal of racists everywhere,” writes economist Walter E Williams in Race and Economics. In South Africa during apartheid, for example, white trade unions supported minimum wage and equal pay laws in order to ensure non-white workers couldn’t get legal employment. Similarly, in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, trade unions specifically excluded blacks in order to prevent them from working for cheaper rates. This fact was noted by the founding African-American leaders. W E B Dubois said in 1929, “Instead of taking the part of the Negro and helping him toward physical and economic freedom, the America labour movement has tried to achieve freedom at the expense of the Negro...The white employers, North and South, literally gave the Negroes work when white men refused to work with him.” Marcus Garvey also badtalked American unions, saying “the only convenient friend the Negro worker or labourer has at the present time is the white capitalist.”

These are extreme examples, but the exclusionary principle is fundamental to trade unionism. And economists have long recognised that the free market is a much more effective device for reducing prejudice than legislation or moral exhortation. Despite his championing of tolerance for Untouchables, even Mahatma Gandhi never succeeded in removing higher-caste bigotry against them. Yet since India dismantled its protectionist economy in the 1990s, untouchability has declined in India—the practice of separate seating for the dalits at weddings, for example, dropped from 75 per cent to 13 per cent in the past 20 years. This is because poverty rates among this caste has been reduced by over 30 per cent, as compared to a national average of 24 per cent, in that time frame. “When businesses were exposed to competition, it suddenly became costly to grant favours to the upper castes and to discriminate against good workers just because they were dalits,” explains journalist and author Johan Norberg in his book Progress.

In Trinidad, the equivalent of dalits are young black men from poor urban communities, and trade unions in tandem with the PNM have done their part to make them unemployable. “The restrictive activities promoted by unions do reduce employment opportunities and the income of those priced out of the market,” Williams argues. “This suggests that union strategies to raise their members’ wages must be accompanied by lobbying for government welfare programmes. Why? Because if unemployment meant starvation, there might be considerable political resistance to higher mandated wages.”

Apart from crass vote-catching, this is why the Government had to introduce make-work programmes like the Unemployment Relief Programme and institute make-up education programmes like Ytepp, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and On-the-Job Training (OJT). But, Williams notes, “Income-subsidy programmes disguise the true effects of labour market restrictions created by unions and other economic agents by casting a few crumbs to those denied jobs in order to keep them quiet, thereby contributing to a permanent welfare class.”

This is the background which explains why Roget and the OWTU don’t care if they mash up the place once they get their wage increase.

Email: [email protected]

Kevin Baldeosingh is a professional writer, author of three novels, and co-author of a History textbook.