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Plantocracy v People power: A political case for the union movement

Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) party organiser Akins Vidale makes a case for the Trade Union Movement (TUM) to be seen as a viable political third party:

The pats on the back have been too many to count since the 2013 Local Government National Debate. However, on too many occasions, there has been the subtext that I will go nowhere with the MSJ.

“You would have a much better chance of contributing to this country if you joined the PNM,” they say. “You won’t get that opportunity as a member of the MSJ.”

Photo: Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley.
Photo: Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley.

There is hardly a week that goes by that I don’t have someone posit this scenario to me. This comes from many quarters and, all of them alike, don’t see the contradiction in the position.

The indictment on us as an electorate is our failure to see how absurd it is to acknowledge persons who have the capacity to contribute to this country’s development and in the same breath dismiss them as irrelevant because they have the ‘wrong’ party card.

It also explains in part the growing attacks on those who still make up the ‘undecided’ in the face of the unprecedented collapse of the Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration. I want to focus a bit on this third force, which I am unapologetically a part of.

I have heard many PNM activists argue that it was their move away from the PNM which led to the election of the PP administration. This is simply not true. There are only three seats currently held by the PP that would have gone to the PNM if it had maintained its 2007 voter tally, Arima, La Horquetta/ Talparo and Toco/ Sangre Grande.

The equation would have then been 26 – 15. The PP would have still won.

The loss in support for the PNM in 2010 in terms of actual voters was 12,976. This loss was spread across all constituencies save for 5 where they actually registered increased support, namely, Caroni Central, Cumuto/Manzanilla, Fyzabad, Laventille West, and San Fernando West.

Photo: Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (centre) campaigns unsuccessfully on behalf of Khadijah Ameen (left) in Chaguanas West. (Courtesy Jyoti Communications)
Photo: Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (centre) and candidate Khadijah Ameen (left) during the Chaguanas West by-elections.
(Courtesy Jyoti Communications)

In spite of registering increased support in these areas, they only won Laventille West and lost the others. Why? The answer lies in the third force not the PNM base.

The fact of the matter is that the PNM in its post 2010 campaign for re-election has focussed a lot of its energies chastising the population for the May 24th election result. While I am not in a position to know what has been discussed behind closed doors, what has been articulated publicly attempts to exonerate the PNM from any responsibility for the results of 2010.

In terms of the actual vote they would be correct because the shift in the PNM base was immaterial to the overall election result. So in that respect they can say proudly that they stood behind their Party. However what has not been assessed is the reason why there was an increased voter turnout against the PNM Administration. And it cannot be simplified to former PM Patrick Manning.

They must answer fundamentally: “What is it about the governance of the country between 2002 and 2010 that would mobilise the electorate to so resoundingly reject the PNM at the polls?”

The answer which the third force has tried to air amidst all the noise is that we are tired of the traditional parties. We are tired of the race-based mobilisation, we are tired of parties saying all the ‘right’ things in opposition and turning on us when they get into office, we are tired of financiers holding our government to ransom, we are tired of corruption, we are tired of nepotism, we are tired of arrogance and, most of all, we are tired of being treated as if we don’t know what we are tired of.

Photo: The Joint Trade Union Movement (JTUM) takes to the streets.
Photo: The Joint Trade Union Movement (JTUM) takes to the streets.

The PP has already lost the support of the third force by taking that constituency for granted to focus on its party base. The PNM seems to be on the same track. However although the PNM has not been able to sway the third force it has not as yet been rejected out of hand as the PP has been in this moment.

So, wither the MSJ in all of this?

In his essay titled “The Challenge of Independence in the British Caribbean”, Gordon Lewis noted that American unions became active in politics “because they have found that, although the company spy and the professional strike breaker have just about passed from the scene and although unions have certain protections under the law, the employer has decided that the place to curb the union movement is in the legislative field.”

The battle for the legislature in a former slave colony extends beyond the negotiation of wages and terms of conditions of employment. The Trade Union Movement (TUM) had a much more profound role in our Caribbean condition.

The 1930s was characterised by unrest led by the TUM. The period has been identified by many historians and regional academics including Sir Arthur Lewis and Susan Craig, among others, as a key turning point in our independence movement, starting with the universal right to vote.

Photo: Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) political leader David Abdulah (left) and general secretary Akins Vidale.
Photo: Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) political leader David Abdulah (left) and general secretary Akins Vidale.

In other words it can be argued that what the civil rights movement was for the US the TUM was for the Caribbean. I believe this is the spirit which the MSJ represents politically. The focus is the need to change the relations of power which is central to de-constructing our plantocracy.

Simply put the traditional parties have no problem with the plantation as long as they are Massa. As far as I am concerned “Massa day done!”

About Akins Vidale

Akins Vidale
Akins Vidale lectures at the Cipriani College of Labour and Cooperative Studies and is a UWI graduate with a B.A. in History. He has served as the president of the Trinidad Youth Council and is the General Secretary of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and NGOs (FITUN). Read his blog: http://akinsvidale.wordpress.com/

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80 comments

  1. They wanted legislation that guaranteed worker’s rights within reason. What might be different is what our cultural associations with work are.

  2. What did the European and North American counterpart want Vernal Damion Cadogan?

  3. Learning so much from this thread right now, but I would like to suggest something about our country.
    Perhaps or attitudes and by extension our trade unions’ attitude toward productivity have been influenced by the historic exploitation of our people represented by slavery, indenturship and plantocracy.

    For the most part the Trinidadian is the descendant of the exploited slave, the exploited indentured servant and the exploiting plantocracy.

    Slaves were captured, their humanity wholey denied, sold, owned and forced into hopeless lives of eternal labor. Indentured laborers were obliged to sign unfair contracts that rendered them little more than chattel and treated as such. This is the legacy of our laborer class who now understandably view labor as something of an injustice.

    Then we have the planter class currently represented by the “Contractocracy” and the “finantocracy” but who’s legacy is represented by the old planter class that was granted lands (as it still is today) the amount of which depends on the extent of their chattel (just as they are today) and against whom it’s workforce traditionally struggled for fairness (just as they are today).

    Against this backdrop we have the Trinidad and Tobago Labor Movement. The slave/indentured class main motive for agitation wasn’t for a say in how the territory was run, it was mostly for a wage and/or a decent wage. That is different from the European and North American counterparts.

  4. Yes people will suffer from slander, but when measured against those who have suffered from getting proper services, I think the numbers are far fewer than those who are suffering

  5. I think once there is sufficient evidence for dpp to hand over to the police, then they should be out.
    I’m wary of kicking them out for allegations for fear that a few innocent people might suffer due to slander.

  6. Well both sides been using the law to their convenience. I can’t grasp the concept of an elected official, who is ALLEGED in all kinda scandals, is Still in office

  7. Yes. I see it what you mean. I didn’t mind much either side calling a no confidence motion in the other. I just take that as an effort to get a particular type of debate going.
    So long as we don’t see more than one a year, I wasn’t that bothered to be fair… Until I heard what they tried to use it for of course!
    My biggest gripe would be how they perform their duties and when people ignore the spirit of the law.

  8. A bunch AH elected officials in a dance wanting to do the two-step and they end up holding up the wall

  9. Look at the Vernella in Parliment talking about how Rottweiler is a product of a rape incident and the load of crap that followed.

    Please tell me someone, has there ever been a no confidence motion against an opposition leader?

  10. How do you mean? In what way do you see it being disrespected?

  11. Seriously now, AH have Meh dry cloth to wipe off d wax, but how can we simply not have any respect for the table of democracy. That alone shows the level that our society has come to.

  12. Look, I’m on AH roll, leave meh alone…lol

  13. Waxing philosophical today Ravi! Lol

  14. Tnt is as violent as we allow it to be.

  15. I guess it is a different topic….but I believe we as a country are exceedingly violent. We tend to use violence, or the threat of violence to achieve so much that I believe we are desensitized to exactly how much we use it. From raising children, to enforcing criminal justice.

    nevertheless, I too have had train delays due to union activity, for which i contacted the union about and got a letter of apology (i kid you not.)

    We need to establish some way to balance the scales of power. Our industrial court is not effective and precedent has not been set to eliminate abuses by both employers and employees.

  16. Is Trinidad and Tobago really a violent place? That’s another topic.
    We have a high crime and murder rate which are linked. But I don’t know that we are necessarily likely to see a random act of violence on even a weekly basis on our to work and back.
    Dunno if others would agree.

  17. I’ve seen my share of lethargic workers in the UK eh. And as for delays… I remember well many nightmarish train delays, Steven, particularly on weekends.
    You can’t even travel by public transport on Christmas because it is as if the country has shut down.
    So I won’t say there are no similarities between the local and UK work forces.

  18. Instead of working with the Cipriani version of labour disputes, (and the train of thought which followed his intervention in labour matters) we as a country ran to Butler and his radical(and violent) form of workers revolution.

    People march to Charlie King junction and make a lap around the bust of Butler instead of really examining his incitement to murder Mr. King in the first place.

    It is the bachannal and confrontational nature of what we are “like” as a country that makes us such a violent place in general. You only need to go to a March where the OWTU is remotely nearby to witness the type of behaviour they endorse. Any issue you as a citizen identify with can easily be cast onto the back burner when the bitter taste of the bullying behaviour sets in.

  19. Companies can’t even fire in Germany without union approval
    Demanding productivity without worker rights is not sustainable

  20. Actually Kyon Esdelle, I do think Steven has a point about unions having some responsibility towards productivity too.
    I’m not necessarily agreeing that our unions here encourage negative work attitudes.
    But if unions represent workers’ interest, then I do think they should care about the companies doing well.
    Having said that Steven, I do remember one union head challenging his employer to invite them to expose corruption within the company so as to increase profits. I don’t think that challenge was accepted.

  21. Kyon Esdelle, living in the UK for a good portion of my life, I express my opinion on things that i believe work, and dont.

    When you tell me that Trinidad and Tobago and Germany can be classed as having even remotely similar cultures towards work, efficiency and productivity due to its union membership then you have gone off the deep end.

    Cultures are affected by incidents which define them. Germany had to rebuild itself twice in a century. Britain had to endure starvation and crippling rationing of food.

    Trinis will go to germany and wonder why the germans are upset that they are 20 mins late to a meeting (because 20 mins is no time to wait) and will go to KFC and wonder why there is only one line to get to 6 cashiers.

  22. Unions are to rep worker rights
    Management duty is profitability
    They meet and a balance is met
    U does ask fire service to solve murders?
    Diff roles

  23. however, Looking at our history, our union leaders never speak about efficiency, or productivity…For some reason no union in T&T can share that it created or influenced unbridled growth and prosperity of a single company….far more an industry

  24. I does laugh when some people try to make europe seem so much virtuous than Trinidad that they deserve better or diff policies

  25. Maybe it was a bit dramatic of me Lasana Liburd I agree…

  26. I will just pretend you didn’t mean it when you said unions are more dangerous than corrupt politicians…

  27. Steven, you make some good points in there generally. But how can you make a widesweeping claim like “unions are the bastions of unproductivity and the bringers of hardship?”

  28. Why would a local union agree to lower wages when the local company pays bonuses to managers when in high debt and huge losses??

  29. Kyon Esdelle, it is easy to speak when you are not in a position to hire/fire.

  30. Diff: Culture meaning that the fundamental ideologies of the Labour Party and the unions of Trinidad and Tobago are completely different.

    In the UK it is understood that for the worker to prosper, the company must prosper. Unions actually negotiated DOWN in 2008 to ensure that people can stay working during the credit crunch.

    Meanwhile in Trinidad, not ONE union representative cares about the company. They set themselves out to be the enemy of progress. The bastions of unproductivity and the bringers of hardship to the company’s bottom line, WHILE wanting more remuneration for the “efforts” of the membership.

  31. If workers are lazy and unproductive u have to blame management

  32. Going back to butler our unions have operated ass backwards! The labour movement had many opportunities to create avenues and negotiation methods which would have benefited their membership as well as the country on the whole.

    Left unbridled, all you have are groups who rule only by terrorizing the services they were contracted to perform in the first place. Without strong leadership, you end up in an upside-down situation with a workforce that agitates to work less, earn more and ultimately get as much as they can for working as little as possible. An example of that is the troubles of the 80’s in the UK. Without strong leadership and a refusal to be bullied by Ms. Thatcher, England may be a different place to what it is today.

    If unions were operating properly, our public service wouldnt be in the mire it is in. Our manufacturing sector wouldnt constantly be looking for other places to operate their businesses(like guyana) and the average man wouldnt roll his eyes in disgust at the mention of the union.

    and btw:

    Trinis ARE lazy and unproductive.

  33. Please tell me about the diff culture?

  34. The biggest fear of all powerful corporates is a socially-conscious populace. Social justice is not handed on a platter by big business or even the State. People have had to fight/agitate for their rights. Our uions are no where near realising that they have an important role to play in achieving a more level and equitable playing field.

  35. Oh really
    What are the different culture? Or u going to repeat the plantation mime that Trinis lazy and don’t deserve proper working conditions ?

  36. OUR country is made of different entities altogether. The politics, personalities and history with our unions make our system much different.

    Tell me where the Labour party of the United Kingdom and the JTUM or even the MSJ are similar please. Tell me the common ideology or shared political outcomes which make them similar.

    The UK and Germany have different cultures when it comes to their labour union activity and politics.

  37. Germany the most productive European nation is heavily unionized so much so when their Multinationals go abroad they encourage the formation of unions

  38. Retrograde??? Where Labour in the UK come from? solidarity in Poland? Democratic Party base

    Rflmao u funny

  39. Union backed politics is a retrograde step in the development of our country.

    Our nation’s history has shown us to back the wrong side. Be it supporting characters like butler over more civil and peace minded individuals, or to supporting Watson duke and company. We as a country like scoundrels who make lots of noise while allowing unproductivity to reign supreme.

    The ideologies of the Trade Union Movement in Trinidad and Tobago are diametrically opposed to governance and government. A union’s responsibility is to its membership, a government to its people en masse. Ultimately, the politics of membership in the union are pitted against the wider population and therein is the conflict of interest that NO union body has been able to conquer.

    A more powerful union, or agglomeration of unions given more power is going to redound negatively on Businesses, the public sector and every level of society not paying dues to the union.

    I say we should be very careful when it comes to the mob. You may find corrupt politicians more palatable.

  40. There are lots of examples of unions allying with and/or playing an active role in politics. Very common in Latin America and elsewhere. Lula is/was a notable example. The represent the working people of the state. Bas Panday and Raffique Shah illustrates that it is not unknown to the country to get involved. Unions don’t necessarily have to become political parties to become ‘political’. They are inherently ‘political actors’ just by being unions, one of many interest groups in the national policy arena. They need to start developing their own competing vision and try to at least influence policy. This should be the norm. No room for fence-sitters. The political and business actors have obvious interests/stakes on behalf of whom they are fighting for influence. The unions are supposed to be fighting for social justice for poor people. They do have a critical role to play.

  41. There are many examples of unions in TT mobilizing for beyond direct interest and that’s why we have a 40 hr work week among other things in contracts

    My only disappointment is the unions not focusing or achieving more on H&S and criminal negligence

  42. The unions are the deal breakers in the country. They are the ones to stand up and hold the Politicians accountable on behalf of the people, not hold the citizens as hostage as it sometimes appear.

  43. I am not sure they are a third force, maybe a 2.2 force. David et al lost me when they joined with the PP and then acted all coyly surprised at the corruption they encountered and quickly moved on to join with the PNM where the practice of corrupt governance started post-independence. How can this quick step political affiliation reassure me that they have the capacity to hold on to any semblance of integrity when faced with tough times and decisions? Further to that, Roget et al seem to practice 19th century unionism in 21st century TT. They need to walk the talk or make a paradigm shift in their own approach to issues.

  44. I never really get a feel that they want to be genuinely engaged in national politics, in a deeper more meaningful manner, beyond the odd press release. Mr Abdullah is a noteworthy exception. But ask the average Trini, When you talk unions, its almost synonymous with industrial relations disputes.

  45. I can’t really argue with that Kala. Akins Vidale, do we have enough examples of the unions mobilizing for matters beyond its own direct interests?
    Or is it that the union believes the interest of wages or working conditions are sufficiently broad?

  46. There is no reason why they cannot play a more active role. I fear though that with a few notable exceptions, they do not have the ‘vision’ thing. A broader more national, social policy activism that we see in so much of Latin America and elsewhere. Great at collective bargaining and chipping to a soca beat for a pay rise, but woefully short on really galvanising the youth,the masses into socially-conscious citizens.

  47. Well, the MSJ will have to stand up to scrutiny themselves. Do the unions have their homes in order? There have been scandals there too. The test of their organisations is where the rubber hits the road, even though we can discuss their worth in theory.

  48. one problem with that business model, and that’s the old political heads that are still involved