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Missed opportunities

Published: 
Sunday, January 8, 2017
Members of the Oilfield Workers Trade Union, OWTU erect a tent at the entrance of Petrotrin Administration Building ,Pointe-a-Pierre on, Saturday as they prepare for strike action today.

How the Government handles the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union’s wage demands will no doubt set the stage for future pleas from both unions and non-unionised interest groups wanting State funds.

From a public relations perspective, the Government has an advantage going in, since the general public perceives the OWTU’s attitude as unreasonable and untimely. In a period when several hundred workers have already lost their jobs, and many more are unsure about their future, the intransigence of a group of employees who enjoy generous salary levels in a struggling State company seems unreasonable. And the attempts by trade union apologists to justify the OWTU’s actions only seem to emphasize the impractical posture.

OWTU president-general Ancel Roget, for example, has continually argued that Petrotrin’s financial woes are the outcome of mismanagement and therefore the workers shouldn’t have to pay the penalty for managers’ mistakes. Mr Roget’s premise that no wage increase is a “penalty” even in a recession is open to debate but, in any case, his argument even if true does not change the fact that Petrotrin simply doesn’t have the money to pay wage increases at this time.

Mr Roget then argues that the union is willing to be reasonable and accept an agreement for a ten per cent increase to be paid over a period of time. But this is a rather idiosyncratic definition of “reasonable”, since such an agreement could open the company to all manner of legal problems should its revenues not increase when wage payments come due, to say nothing of saddling Petrotrin with obligations that could compromise future prospects.

All in all, Mr Roget and the OWTU have missed an opportunity to establish exemplary leadership by their failure to adopt a more conciliatory stance in this recessionary period. What the country needs at this time is effective co-operation between the Government, the private sector, and the trade unions.

But tripartite co-operation only becomes pertinent in Trinidad and Tobago when energy prices drop, and hence never go beyond hollow rhetoric.

The core problem is that government, unions and the private sector sometimes have conflicting goals. Politicians largely favour policies which will get them re-elected, even if such policies sometimes make limited economic sense; trade unionists claim to want to ensure job security for their workers, even if better benefits undermine economic stability; and the private sector wants profit.

In times of plenty, this conflict places politicians populist goals more in tandem with trade unionists’ wage demands, hence side-lining the business sector. In lean times, however, the politicians find it necessary to align with business in order to maintain economic stability and their electoral prospects.

This is why, historically, tripartite cooperation has only become workable when a country’s economy tethers on the brink. Moreover, economic recovery has occurred mostly when trade unionists abandon both their more extreme ideological beliefs, such as State control of commercial activity, and wage and benefits demands unrelated to productivity. This was the case with Germany after the Second World War, and with the United Kingdom in the 1980s.

The tripartite approach has also been effective in neighbouring Barbados, albeit for different reasons, and that country doesn’t even have an Industrial Court to prevent unions taking unrestrained strike action.

In T&T now, trade unions in general, and the OWTU in particular, need to attend to the lessons of both history and economics. Should their leaders refuse to face reality, they run the risk of harming the very workers whose best interests they claim to represent.

In T&T now, trade unions in general, and the OWTU in particular, need to attend to the lessons of both history and economics. Should their leaders refuse to face reality, they run the risk of harming the very workers whose best interests they claim to represent.