The Politics of Labour: why Governments fear Trade Unions

I want to start by quoting some comments on the impact of wage increases on the economy.

  • High wages wrenched by the trade union movement, led to capital intensive investment since investors preferred to use more machinery rather than pay the high cost of labour
  • High wages were jacking up prices for consumers, farmers and businessmen, jacking up costs of production and so making locally produced goods too expensive to compete on the export market. This led to less investment, less exports and therefore less foreign exchange, and greater unemployment.
  • High wages were taking too great a share of the National Income at the expense of government revenues and profits for business to reinvest and create more employment.

When do you think these statements were made? Last week? Last month? Last year?

Photo: An All Trinidad General Trade Workers Union protest. (Courtesy ATGTWU)
Photo: An All Trinidad General Trade Workers Union protest.
(Courtesy ATGTWU)

It is actually from 53 years ago! These were excerpts from the 1963 Budget speech.

Those sentiments, however, could have come from discussions in several quarters in 2016.

But, before we come to the present, let’s go even further back to explore some additional sources of this line of thinking.

On 25 July 1842, a House of Commons Committee on the West Indian Colonies identified that “the main cause of reduction in production and consequent distress to the planter… was the high rate of pay.” So, only four years after emancipation, the cry was ‘wages are too high.’

How about one more for good measure.

In 1935, a Wages Advisory board was established. They proposed $3.13 for manual workers and $2.57 for workers in rural areas and Tobago and went onto say in the report; “These figures do not represent the minimum expenditure upon which a man can live. He can live on much less.”

Photo: A sugar cane worker contemplates during post-colonial Trinidad and Tobago. (Courtesy Talking Humanities)
Photo: A sugar cane worker contemplates during post-colonial Trinidad and Tobago.
(Courtesy Talking Humanities)

And, as Susan Craigs noted: “To add insult to injury, the advisers complained that (they) were forcibly struck by the marked absence of thrift, expect in occasional instances… or of any sustained attempt to put something by for the rainy day…”

The bottom line is that there is never a ‘right time’ for wage increases as current wages are always fair.

Pick up any newspaper and you will get your parallel for 2016. The belief that a worker’s salary is a matter of what should be offered to them as opposed to what is a just due, has been a part of relationship between employer and employee from the inception of our society.

And there is always the seemingly logical list of arguments as to why increases should be avoided. The contemporaries have pegged the position to a ‘debate’ on productivity without defining what they mean by productivity.

The fall out of this myopia has been that salary cuts and retrenchment have been the go-to economic plan in challenging times.

Photo: Fiery protest at Beetham Gardens. (Courtesy Anonymous Motorist)
Photo: Fiery protest at Beetham Gardens.
(Courtesy Anonymous Motorist)

We ignore the challenges posed by the fundamental structural problems inherent in our economy. These problems are directly linked to failures in investment, high unemployment and underemployment, the impact of external factors on government revenue, failure to adapt to global trading models—online purchasing is a case in point—and poor export performance outside of hydro carbons.

There is little material discussion happening in these areas and, where it is happening, those who can affect the change are not part of the discussions.

Hence, in times of adjustment, it is the working class that is asked to bear the burden with loss of job being the ultimate sacrifice.

This is neither accidental nor incidental. There has always been a push against the organisation of workers. And though a lot of the discussion may surround wages the real debate is about control and power.

Historically it has been the rights and interest of employers which have been enshrined in law, and successive governments did very little to address this inequity. The attitude against trade unionism and the weak legislation which barely protects their members is grounded in old colonial attitudes.

Photo: Leaders of the All Trinidad General Trade Workers Union protest. (Courtesy ATGTWU)
Photo: Leaders of the All Trinidad General Trade Workers Union protest.
(Courtesy ATGTWU)

In direct response to the real possibility of organised labour after emancipation, the Combination Ordinance was passed and implemented in every British West Indian territory between 1838 and 1840.

The laws took the view that trade union activity was “injurious to trade and commerce, dangerous to the tranquillity of the country and especially prejudicial to the interest of all who are concerned in them.”

Then, in 1965, the Industrial Stabilisation Act (ISA) was introduced, which in effect was a combination of the Strikes and Lock out and Sedition Ordinances of 1920. It also introduced the legal segregation of workers into essential services placing restrictions on which unions persons could join.

This was in direct response to sugar workers wanting to join the OWTU which would have made George Weekes the president of the two most critical sectors in the country.

The ISA was eventually replaced by the Industrial Relations Act 1972, which today provides little recourse for workers as seen in the case of ArcelorMittal and the many thousands of workers in this country who are exploited every day.

Photo: Steel tycoon and Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal is the owner of ArcelorMittal. (Courtesy Rediff)
Photo: Steel tycoon and Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal is the owner of ArcelorMittal.
(Courtesy Rediff)

I am not suggesting that there have been no gains by labour or that conditions have not improved generally. But the real advancement of the working class lies in its ability to influence changes to legislation which advance the interest of the class.

George Meany,  founding member of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations, noted that “American unions are active in politics because they have found that, although the company spy and the professional strike breaker had 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.”

So if you understood my historical connection of the treatment of the workforce in this country, I expressed the view that the attitudes toward compensation for workers have not shifted significantly from the post-emancipation period.

Secondly, I identified pieces of legislation which have been enacted not to protect workers’ rights but to ensure that they were kept ‘in line.’

Thirdly, I am suggesting that, if the legislature is controlled by those who seek only to exploit you, then it stands to reason that the legislation would also be exploitative.

Photo: Then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) shakes hands with her successor, Dr Keith Rowley, en route to Nelson Mandela's funeral in South Africa. (Courtesy News.Gov.TT)
Photo: Then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) shakes hands with her successor, Dr Keith Rowley, en route to Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa.
(Courtesy News.Gov.TT)

Therefore any fundamental shift which is to occur can only occur when the working class takes an active position, to not only direct the legislature but to become a part of it—and to let “those who labour hold the reigns of power.”

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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:

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  1. Warning: Undefined variable $userid in /www/wired868_759/public/wp-content/plugins/user-photo/user-photo.php on line 114

    Government scared they get voted out of office!!! that is all!! and nothing else!!!SMH.

  2. Quite impressive and enlightening article…good historical correlation also. Thank you for that.

  3. ..You think robotics doesn’t victimize working people and make them redundant? Whatever the “adjustments” Labour needs to make, the fact is that the basic demand for Bread and Justice, and orientation towards popular democracy are correct. Just look at what the democracy of the corporations has wrought across the globe..

    • what every you believe about the evils of big corporations you are a user, beneficiary and is wealthier because they exist. You travel via big corporation, you communicate, blog, get medical treatment, have clean water, improvement in the quality of life due to the workings of a free market economy and the byproduct of the efficiencies of big corporations.

    • ..Then accept what they give, including political intrigue and corruption, financial and economic monopoly, systemic underdevelopment, global warming…..I could go on. Silly me. I prefer people before profit..

    • Keith Look Loy I think you are missing my point, I must apologies if my words are not clear. We need corporations for development and improvement in living standards, like life you have both good and bad people you have good and bad corporations. But man improvement and increased living standard are due in no small part the ability of corporations innovations and creations. Imagine life without any search engines on the internet. Or food without the resources of a corporation R&D department. You cannot and should not label all corporations for the misdeeds of a few greedy men.

    • Paul E Pierre can you suggest a sector in T&T that has a free market economy and no monopolies? Water, transport etc are all monopolies. Where does the market determine the price? Online shopping is the closest concept of a free market citizens have gotten.

    • ..I would be stupid not to agree that corporations drive the modern global economy. That does not mean they work for the benefit of Mankind. They work for profit, too often at the expense of Mankind. They must be controlled. By popular power. By popular democracy. Not the demockracy of the corporations. Meaningful social and political progress has always come from below. In every country. Trini not to be excepted. When we leave the corporations and their political operatives to run unchecked, we the people always suffer. Just look around man..

    • Lester Logie Oil industry and farming/argriculture

    • Okay. I am not in a position currently to question your answers as the data is not available. I can talk based on my experience purchasing oil to service my vehicle. The price of oil has gone down. This is not reflected in the price I am paying for a gallon. It has not moved to reflect international prices.

    • Guys until there is proof that another way can provide the better benefits and less cost than free market economy and corporations then we use and fix what we have. For profit works the best because the consumer is the final decider of your success

    • ..LOLOLOLOL.You living in a parallel universe yes. No disrespect intended..

    • Lester Logie When I speak about oil I am talking about the exploration, not the distribution or retail of it

    • Keith Look Loy I am not, I have lived as a free marketer all of my life. I see what the farmers market does.

    • ..When one bank raping you what you gonna do? Go to another bank? Or insurance company? Or supermarket? Or gas station? Or, aaaaahhhh…

    • ..Again with due respect, farmers markets hardly dictate the direction or ownership of society

    • Even now I am not employed by no one, I work on my own. Banks like me are for profit and I understand that. While I use them for money clearing services for my business I personally don’t have a bank account in my name. Just like you I find their personal fee expensive thus no personal accounts

    • ..Then we agree my brother. Their ONLY interest is PROFIT. In the BILLIONS. Later for you and me. A pox on them..

    • I wish that was so. If it was then we would be getting revenue from these oil companies instead of hearing the Minister complaing about lost revenue by giving tax write offs for exploration. These companies dictate what takes place here and how they pay taxes. Within the last year there have been a flurry of meetings between them and our PMs. Does that suggests a free market? Whom do you think has the upper hand in those meetings?

    • Hmm, brother you are again not correct, farmers market is what any real open market does. Consumers are our bosses, they by their purchase agree willing that our produce fits their purpose

    • Keith Look Loy What is exactly wrong with profits? I my view our banks are not very profitable and are bad investments as ROI(return on investment) is low.

    • ..Oh gosh. But farmers dont control the economy or the politics of the country. The fat cats do. That must change for working people to survive in peace..

    • ..I gone yes. If you could declare these rapist banks not very profitable when they declare more billions in profit every year I gone..

    • Lester Logie Hmm, that is market working in the best possible way. If I am an oil man and my interest is in oil then I am looking for the best return on my investments. Other countries have incentives provided for that risk but I am already here if you(government) can match that or better it then I stay. If not I am gone. We must always understand context, deep drilling is a big gamble when if I drill and fail then it all my lost. The market always determines the price. Better incentives means that we can sustain our oil production levels, no or little incentives the oil stays in the ground and we are poorer for it.

    • Keith Look Loy Who are these fat cats? My understanding is people runs corporations, they like you want to maximize their limited resources and make a profit. They leverage their knowledge and expertise to create wealth from ideas. Why must we use a wide brush to create the impression that free market and corporations are bad when the truth is they benefit us more than they hurt us….

  4. Hmm, let me start by saying that I am from a farming heritage and understand the plight and need for better wages, constant training and good working conditions for all. I am of the view that labour need to be a part of the development conversation but their ideology and world view needs a readjustment. We live in a fast pace world where technological innovation is changing the relationship between labour factor input and product efficiency. A report that I will attach after will show the future of robots and lost jobs. We need to start asking the right questions and looking for better solutions, the bad old days of labour is gone.

  5. Nothing without struggle. Should be our motto.

  6. Well written article, particularly having given the background on the onset.

    Would have preferred a stronger or definitive ending though – but that is just my taste; I prefer something ‘tangible’ to take away from the last couple of lines.

    History will show that under the UNC Governments, labour was better treated. In fact, in keeping with the ideologies of the UNC, which leans closer to socialism, the minimum wage was increased and their was more assistance to senior citizens.

    Historically again, the PNM has not had a good record of taking care of the working class, but has favoured the upper class – particularly from West Trinidad.

    Yet, the PNM has had more support from labour due to the ethnic composition of the Unions, and has used the unions as their propaganda and ‘sabotage’ arm.

    The UNC has been too gullible and weak in its stance against public pressure, and recognising this, the PNM unions have vociferously demanded wage increases, and have shut down the country on several occasions.

    When the PNM is in charge, there is a ‘loud silence’ within the Trade Union fraternity, and they all place their ‘tails between their legs’ and ‘jump’ when ordered to do so, with just a ‘scant growl’.

    Recently though, this reaction to the UNC Government evolved from a ethnic divide to a gender one, as the predominantly ‘black’ unions made up of mainly men, heaped scorn on the Indian ‘ooman’ who was the PRime Minister.

    Dr. Rowley got into the fray with sexist, scornful anecdotes, and PNM sports meetings continued to stamp upon the character of “Kamala”. portraying her as a drunk, loose person.

    Though I do not intend to defend anyone’s character (deserving or not), there was a marked difference in rhetoric and scorn. Had this been a man, it would have been different. The issue was not just that she was Indian, or a woman, but she was an Indian woman, and so the stereotype held by some PNM supporters reigned supreme.

    This is despite, KPB doing much more for labour than the previous PNM administration. One can clearly remember the mannequins.

    As such, the complex relationship between the State and the Labour unions became even more complex, to the detriment of the working class.

  7. …Democracy and social progress are assured only when the mass of ordinary working people unite and activate to struggle for and to safeguard them. That is the history of Man, Politics and Society. No person, no party “grants” that to the people once left to their own devices. And Labour and the Left must be central to that struggle. Our governments eke out the benefits of Democracy and economic growth to the people only under pressure from Labour and the Left. Read our history..

    • Labour lost its way, and saw the struggle as a means to a political end….a means to a political career. Union personnel are some of the most unproductive persons in an Organisation, and the most disruptive, seeking more pay for less honest work.

      How many salaries does Ancil Roget get? One from Trinimar and one from OWTU? How much hours of work does he put in at Trinmar? Zero?

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