The whole country, and our trade unions in particular, mark a very important day today—the anniversary of the protests in 1937 that effectively led to the recognition of the modern trade union movement and, in the process, nudged Trinidad and Tobago further towards its own independence.
The speeches today will be all too familiar, dominated by vitriol against government, businesses and reviving old and outdated class war ghosts out of synch with today’s world and its challenges.
To counter that, here is what we imagine that perhaps more enlightened trade union leaders could be saying to their members instead:
Today, we mark a very important milestone in the labour movement’s and the country’s history, with a moment to reflect on the sacrifices and hard-won gains made by our labour leaders back in 1937. We should never forget what they achieved.
But we must always look at the past as a way of helping shape the future—and we have both a present and a future that look very, very different from what our predecessors experienced decades ago.
From isolated islands, weeks or even months away from the capital of the Empire, very much able to contain both positive and negative developments by being mostly sheltered from other parts of the world, we now live in a global village, with just hours, not even days, needed to reach another continent and no need at all to leave our homes to meet the world via the internet.
This transformation has brought many advantages and gains, but it also changed the way we can and must work, and produce both goods and services. In economic terms, we now compete not with neighbouring nations, but with the entire world. And, as a consequence, it is much harder for us to shelter from challenges that may arise from the other side of the world.
The digital revolution that allows us to be connected with the world also means the way we work is changing beyond recognition. Yes, technology is making some roles and jobs redundant–as has been the case throughout history–but it is also opening up new and exciting job opportunities.
And global opportunities, too. Today, a Trinbagonian may well be able to be contracted for remote work from anywhere else in the world, thus earning a living and generating much-needed foreign currency for the country without travelling thousands of miles to do so.
As trade unions, we must accept that old concepts, like jobs for life, may not apply any more, and that we must work closely with employers and education policymakers to ensure that the next generation of workers is as well prepared for the digital world as possible.
And that we all work together to ensure that we embed the concept of continuous learning throughout our careers as the best way to remain productive and not be left behind as technology and conditions change.
This also means that we need to find, together with employers, the best possible way to ensure that our laws and policies accept and reflect the more flexible approach to work we see developing today. Our laws—and our unions—overregulate work, even when workers themselves would rather enjoy a more flexible way to live their lives.
We are very, very proud of the labour movement’s track record in Trinidad and Tobago, and we are sure we can remain relevant and contribute to the country’s prosperity without depending on the current labour relations legal framework.
We are proposing changes to the law, so that employees are free to decide whether they want to be represented by their recognised trade union or whether they would rather negotiate directly with the employers. After all, our predecessors fought for more, not less freedom for workers.
And we are going one step further by proposing changes to the current rules that effectively give trade unions a near monopoly when it comes to taking cases against employers to the Industrial Court.
Like in many countries around the world, individuals ought to have the right to take their grievances directly to the relevant employment tribunal, with the option to be represented by a trade union should they so desire, given that we believe we are best placed to support them.
Above all, it is time for us to ditch the adversarial nature of our industrial relations. This is helping no one, and the time is right for us to work together if, as a nation, we are to succeed in this digital and highly interconnected world.
It doesn’t mean we will always agree, and we will be prepared to consider industrial action should we feel dialogue is not taking us in the right direction. But we will always give dialogue priority, will be as pragmatic as possible and undertake never to engage in frivolous or malicious disputes.
After all, we must understand that not every job can be saved and that change is inevitable (and, actually, exciting). A modern trade union looks ahead to foresee challenges their members may face, and then takes the necessary actions to mitigate against them.
This may mean accepting temporary pay reductions when a business is facing difficult times, or working with employers to upskill the workforce ahead of technology or market changes.
The pandemic showed that union leaders and employers can and must work together to support, protect and develop the workforce. But it also showed how important it is for us, as a nation, to be on the front foot when it comes to preparedness and adaptability.
We have been really good at writing about the proud history of our trade union movement. It is now time to start writing the history of a new and bright future and without delay.
Maybe one day something like this will be said and T&T will be in a much better place for that.
Happy Labour Day.