Building Trade Union Unity: Consolidating for National Progress and Development – Bro Thomas

When we speak of unity what crosses our mind is oneness. We think of a whole, something that is complete. We think of mutual agreement and harmony, of uniformity and consistency. Can national progress and development be achieved in the absence of these? I will not hasten in saying ‘NO’. 

In the U.S.A. following the end of the Civil War, Americans were assured of unity. When the Berlin wall which saw 40 years of division between West and East Germany was torn down there was a promise of unity.

In seeking to end family feuds mediators advocate for unity. Religious institutions who for decades, have been holding on to certain doctrines now call for unity among the religious community. Former political foes after years of fighting each other put aside their differences and amalgamate to win an election. There are excellent examples where both international and local trade union organizations have done the same in order to be stronger voices in representing the interest of workers. 

Decades ago we saw the establishment of regional institutions all of which have or had the potential to unite the Caribbean people in various ways. Of note are the Caribbean Public Services Association, the Caribbean Congress of Labour, West Indies Cricket Board of Control, CARICOM, Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, Caribbean Examination Council and even the failed West Indies Federation. 

Although many citizens may have been disappointed and critical of the failure of some of these organisations to resolve some of the problems of the region, the initiative and efforts must be recognized and commendation expressed of those who had the foresight. 

Historically it was important and critical to get workers organized and united in order to address poor working conditions and the absence of good social services in the early 1900’s in the region. The freedom to employees to form, and belong to unions of their choice did not come without struggle and great efforts for some of the territories. Many protestors were punished for their participation in the riots of the 1930’s which involved the burning of sugar plantations. 

Trade Union unity, that is unity among the working class, has seen the downfall of repressive administrations at different points on the globe. Polish Lech Walesa comes to mind. He was able to mobilize an entire nation in the fight for freedom and justice for workers. Can we compare the sacrifices which were made by our forefathers, and the pain and suffering which they endured and which still exist in many parts of the world even today to the little that is being asked of us to keep our struggle alive? 

Imagine being placed under house arrest or in solitary confinement because of being an advocate for trade union and workers’ rights. Think of the pain which accompanies the fatal shooting of a loved one for participating in Union organized protests. What of innocent children who are victims of heinous crimes and violent acts because their parents are trade union advocates?

While these particular situations may not be present in our region, there are many other issues which demand our attention and greater unity and solidarity among the working class if national progress and development are to be achieved. 

Many anti trade union policies and practices, some of which existed before are resurfacing. Such unjust policies and practices present elements of colonialism or actions that predate our political independence and which we thought had been totally eradicated. For example, contract labour is quickly replacing full time employment as employers take advantage of the high unemployment rate to exploit our youth, especially our female workers. Contractual workers are being denied most of the long term benefits and privileges which accompany full time employment. 

Public services are being politicized with employment and promotion being determined by political affiliation and allegiance rather than merit and ability to do the work. In some jurisdictions within the region the independence, integrity and impartiality of Public Service Commissions raise cause for concern although respective national Constitutions speak to the independence of such state institutions.

Workers must unite if we are to successfully crush illegal attempts which seek to deny them their constitutional right to join unions of their choice and to fully participate in activities of their unions. An unhappy and disgruntled employee will never give the level of productivity and efficiency necessary for positive national progress and development. 

Unless we are united in our effort to influence changes to outdated laws which retard the growth and development of the public service, national development will suffer.

Our failure to rally behind colleagues, who are unfairly treated at work, will result in the creation of a work culture which in the future will be hard to correct.

If we are to seriously engage ourselves in national progress and development we cannot sit selfishly by and not participate in campaigns against the sexual abuse and exploitation of women and children. We must not use position or authority to prevent justice against perpetrators of such and other crimes. 

We must instill in the minds of our youth and students values and principles to the extent that any deviation will be accompanied by a feeling of guilt and the need for correction and amending of ways. 

As Union leaders, members and workers we must accept that we are first and foremost citizens of our countries, and as such have a right to state our objection to what we consider acts of corruption, victimization and injustice. Wrong is wrong regardless of who does it or when and where it is done. The heavenly reward which awaits us is far beyond transient human rewards and favours which prevent us from condemning the wrong doings in our society. 

Had those before us not taken a position of empathy, a caring attitude and militancy to what existed, our current situation would have been far worse. Thanks to them we are enjoying certain benefits as a result of their unselfishness, steadfastness and perseverance. What contribution are we making in ensuring the preservation and protection of those benefits, and at the same time creating better opportunities for our sons and daughters and their offspring?

Remember this: Our professionalism, honesty and principles should not be compromised when we are offering our service for which we are being paid. 

We must seek to establish links of solidarity and professionalism which should remain unbroken as we persist in our efforts towards progress and development. And as we move forward in unity differences should be addressed and resolved. 

In ending let me make mention of some inspiring quotations from a few well known individuals. 

From the great German writer Johann Friedrich Van Schiller: “Even the weak become strong when they are united.” Alexander The Great, King of Marcedonia who united Greece and re-established the Corinthian League and conquered the Persian Empire said: “Remember upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all.”

The German philosopher, economist, sociologist, journalist and revolutionary socialist Karl Marx said the following: “The worker of the world has nothing to lose, but chains; workers of the world unite.” Lyndon B. Johnson the 36th President of the U.S.A. postulated, “There are no problems we cannot solve together, and very few that we can solve by ourselves.”

Another U.S. President Woodrow T. Wilson posited, “We cannot be separated in interest or divided in purpose. We stand together until the end.”

I always think of the saying of our very own regional icon, retired ILO Workers Specialist and former General Secretary of the Caribbean Congress of Labour Bro George De Peana who stated, “We must all swim together, or get drowned separately.” 

We should walk the various alleys and streets satisfied that no matter what the circumstances we will be united in our efforts in ensuring national progress and development.  

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