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Kangalee: Workers must take unions back from ‘mocking pretenders’ posing as leaders

“[…] The leadership of the labour movement has lost credibility and trade union leaders are being seen as ‘smartmen’, confidence tricksters and hustlers along the lines of insurance agents, lawyers, bankers, policemen, politicians and priests.

“[…] If we are to defend ourselves, as workers, against the renewed attacks from the employers and the State, then union members must take back their unions from the mocking pretenders posing as trade unionists…”

In the following Letter to the Editor, National Workers Union (NWU) education and research editor Gerry Kangalee discusses the state of the trade union movement:

Photo: A joint trade union demonstration.
(Copyright Trinidad Guardian)

The leadership of the trade union movement today is the weakest it has been since the 1930’s. In effect, the weakest it has been in its history. This weakness is precisely why the economic and political elites have decided to launch their attack at this time.

The ruling elites have taken and are taking measures to ensure that they force the indentured servants and the chattel slaves back to the plantation. They have launched a sustained attack on the working class, on the trade unions and on the laws that give workers the minimal protections they enjoy. They have attacked the very ability of working and poor people to maintain a civilised quality of life.

Why is the assault on working people intensifying at this time? Let’s be honest and face up to reality. We, trade unionists, must look at ourselves in the mirror and take the beam out of our own eyes.

Unlike in the 1980s—when the trade union movement launched a decade long fightback and battled the employers, blow for blow—working people find themselves today almost defenceless.

Image: The value of labour unions.

I grew up in the movement at a time when criticism and self-criticism was the balance wheel of analysis and was generally accepted as being essential to moving forward. Today, criticism is seen as betrayal. The very accountability that we demand of others seems to be non-existent when we examine ourselves.

The vast majority of workers are not unionised and union membership continues to shrink as workers are retrenched and the employers are smelling blood. They are no longer afraid of the power of unionised workers, because they have succeeded in compromising many trade union leaders.

There is an alarming lack of capacity in handling the fundamental tasks of dealing with workers’ grievances and disputes. Education and training from the shop floor level up is no longer a priority. Many of the top leaders are afraid to have knowledgeable, informed, trained and conscious officers around them—especially on the shop floor.

Many trade union leaders are showing an embarrassing inefficiency and incompetence and are unable–and, in many cases, unwilling–to protect, defend and advance their members’ interests; they seem only concerned with their personal interests.

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

We are in a horrible mess. Most trade union leaders are unable to mobilise their members, are unable to convince them about most things, are unable to organise anything useful and have lost the respect of their members and the broad masses of working people.

They believe that mobilisation is posing for photo ops, giving media sound bites and hosting press conferences. They bypass their general councils, section and branch committees and are afraid to hold discussions with their members, opting instead for media conferences.

Much of the leadership of organised labour does not observe the first principles of the labour movement: class solidarity, mass organisation, collective action, organisational democracy and political education.

The leadership of the labour movement has lost credibility and trade union leaders are being seen as ‘smartmen’, confidence tricksters and hustlers along the lines of insurance agents, lawyers, bankers, policemen, politicians and priests.

Image: A satirical take on trade unions.

Many leading trade unionists—not all—act as watchmen for the employers and the State. They warn the employers when workers get restless and collaborate with them to disarm and de-mobilise their members.

They use the trade unions as tools of personal aggrandisement, of personal enrichment and as mechanisms to curry favour with political parties and governments which are fiercely opposed to the advancement of the interests of the working class. It is sometimes difficult to make out who is employer and who is trade union leader.

If we are to defend ourselves, as workers, against the renewed attacks from the employers and the State, then union members must take back their unions from the mocking pretenders posing as trade unionists.

We must develop a culture of collective leadership and strengthen the democracy in our unions. We must put checks and balances on our leaders, encourage a culture of debate and pressure them to show respect to the least among us.

Photo: Leaders of the then All Trinidad General Trade Workers Union take action in the form of a protest demonstration.

Shop floor leaders and activists who sit in committee meetings, workplace meetings, general councils, COSSABOs, mass meetings, annual conferences and executive meetings and do not speak up in the interest of their members because of fear that the leaders will be angry with them are not loyal trade unionists.

To be a loyal trade unionist does not mean we have to support every word that comes out of the mouth of the leader, when we know that he/she is spouting foolishness. To be a loyal trade unionist means that we must do all things incumbent upon us to ensure that our unions are fighting-fit organisations that can defend the working people against the attacks on our livelihood.

Branch officials and shop stewards must appreciate that they represent workers and are duty-bound to seek their members’ interests at all times even though it may put them on the wrong side of the leadership.

They must ensure that trade union executives take direction from the shop floor; from the workers. They must continually pound it into the heads of their leaders that leaders are not bosses but servants of their members.

Photo: Workers make their voices heard at a trade union rally in Trinidad.
(via Al Jazeera)

Trade unionists must arm themselves with the necessary perspective, the overall vision, the requisite strategies and the training to beat back the assault from the State, the big capitalists and the employers on the entitlements, rights and benefits of workers, unionised and non-unionised.

The trade union movement must embark on an intensive and extensive education, training and communication drive. The foot soldiers, the shop stewards, branch officers, activists and members must be trained to handle whatever is thrown at them from the shop floor to the Industrial Court to the picket line and the strike camp.

But this vision can only work and we can only move forward when we abandon the culture of authoritarianism and embrace a culture of participation and democracy for the rank and file. 

If trade union leaders do not do so of their own accord, the membership must take the initiative and, by all means necessary, retake control of their unions. 

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