The announcement by the government of mass redundancies has created a scenario in which the trade union goliaths have abandoned ship. First to go is Sir Roy Trotman, a man who no doubt has overstayed his welcome and whose members should have shipped him out ages ago; now Dennis Clarke, of the National Union of Public Workers, has announced his retirement.
The announcement of a possible replace by Sir Roy Trotman, general secretary of the Barbados Workers’ Union, could not come at a more opportune moment.
Unfortunately for him, it will mean that after a lifetime of dedicated service to his members, the historical moment he has chosen will leave him with a distasteful legacy of failure. He goes at a time when many of his members face terrible hardship as they are in line to lose their jobs, both in the public and private sectors. And he has been forced to admit that the union has not got the funds to provide for his members if they fall on hard times, or if he called a strike in reaction to the government’s austerity jobs cut.
In many ways, this is his own fault and should be a wake-up call to the entire nation. For decades he has headed a union that had as its only weapon an adversarial confrontation with employers, the outdated idea of the two sides of industry, capital and labour. What Sir Roy and his key advisers have failed to understand is that industrial relations have moved on from the confrontational post-war years, which ran up to the end of the 1970s. Workplace relations have moved on with employers now offering employees a menu of benefits that have in the main to marginalise trade unionism. At some point Sir Roy and his team must explain to members why they have been paying their union dues for years, sometimes decades, and now that they need to draw on that dedication the general secretary is warning there is nothing in the pot. They will need to explain to members what kind of hedging they have been making of the unions funds, including preparation for an exceptional occurrence. They will have to explain to distressed members why the union is about to fail them when they call on the one service which drove them to join up – collective bargaining.
In Britain, arguably the most militant of countries, militant trade unionists were a bit late waking up to smell the coffee, but in the main they have. Employers now routinely offer occupational pensions; in the good old days these were defined benefit pensions with a 40/60 benefit (still prevalent in the public sector); now most people get defined contribution (money purchase) pensions, in which the burden passes from the employer to the employee. But they are better than nothing.
Had Barbadian trade unionism moved with the times they would have been in the vanguard of social and economic change in Barbados. In the main they had an open goal, since the lawyer/politicians are not generally as bright as they think they are, and the business community is cash greedy, they do not care as much as they should for their workers. The BWU has given its members a credit union, but this is only part of the deal that any innovative and forward-looking trade union should be offering its current and retired members and their families. A programme of training, from simple literacy and numeracy to information technology and other cutting edge skills should be offered to members and their children. They should be offered reasonably priced medical and dental schemes, protection cover, a wills and estate planning service, legal advice, basic insurance cover such as motor insurance, travel and home cover. They did not because they were caught in a time warp, just offering members more of the same.
By any reckoning, the BWU Labour College at Mangrove in St Philip should be the leading regional institution of its type, challenging the best in the US and Europe; as it is it is a poor relation. Part of the problem is that Trotman, along with the entire government and civil service, were raised in a post-independence age in which it was thought normal to be working for the state. Entrepreneurialism, a spirit of inventiveness, is outside their mindset; they feel as if the state has an obligation to provide for all their needs. So those who are not hooked on statism, who believe that there is nothing socially wrong with people providing for themselves, those who believe that welfare is a social safety net and not a pay cheque for easy living, find they are in the firing line for personal abuse. And, to make matters worse, there are a number of academics who provide the intellectual cover for this lazy thinking which encourages people in their mental inertia. We are all familiar with the familiar arguments: foreign reserves, loan guarantees, government contracts, fraudulent use of VAT and national insurance contributions, free university education – it is a chorus of excuses that run right through the very heart of the Barbadian story.
I am sure, whichever government we had in power, had the BWU gone to it with credible proposals for compulsory long-term savings they would have been treated with the courtesy and seriousness that they deserve. With transparent annual statements, such a development would have proved, over the first five to ten years, an enormously popular vehicle for wealth creation. It would have also created a vitally important non-bank stream of funding government, small and medium enterprises and for households. But the idea never crossed their bureaucratic radar. With a well organised investment strategy, such a scheme would offer a multi-asset approach from the savings accumulation stage, comprising equities, bonds, cash, with a default fund, through the asset build-up to the at-retirement and retirement stages. With an automatic five-year review in the accumulation stage, with a biennial review if requested in the pre-retirement stage, and annual reviews in the five years leading up to retirement. The unions should also be leading the debate about the ownership of annuities and the almost dishonest way in which insurance companies abuse annuitants (Clico comes to mind). For that the unions will have to hire actuarial expertise so that they can independently analyse the assumptions on which the firm’s actuarial pooling decisions are made.
The BWU will also need expertise on the re-insurance fees paid by local insurance companies and what they charge the annuitants. How about medical underwriting and the enhance annuity market? There is also the question of mortgages, again one in which the union should be leading the debate. Why should the lenders dictate rates and the length of mortgages? How about 40 year, intergenerational, offset mortgages? How an investment arm of the union, competing on a level playing field with some of the foreign-owned banks and insurance companies? The only barrier to stop them is the lack of vision. No one is saying that Sir Roy should have all the ideas,, but that he should have surrounded himself with bright young men and women to provide the ideas, an in-house think-tank. That was what I thought the St Philip college under Greaves was intended to be. Most of these services could have been jointly provided by the trade unions, either through the confederation or separately, and will go a long way toward empowering ordinary Barbadians, something the loudmouths and politicians do not contribute to. There is a very high price to pay for ignorance.
In a world that has moved on, in which labour reforms is a key part of the new working environment, Sir Roy sat on his pile like the grand old Duke of York. He marched them out for sick building syndrome, he marched them back in again; he marched them out when their colleagues got sacked, then he marched them back again; then when he had his fill of aggressive trade union militancy, he went begging the owner of the family-owned Chefette to sell shares to the public.
As someone who should have been the statesman of Barbadian trade unionism, Sir Roy should have been the great conductor, directing his juniors and making sure the noise coming from organised labour is in harmony. What the nation needs is a new form of dialogue, right across the range of social policy initiatives, and Sir Roy should have been one of the principal architects of that conversation.
For reasons best known to himself, Sir Roy has failed to fully understand that unit labour costs in Barbados are too high, this is impacting on the nation’s competitiveness and, therefore, its economic growth. In simple terms, as a nation we must take an urgent step back (a lower standard of living) in order to make two or more forward (economic growth and prosperity). Even in his simplicity, Sir Roy in his heart of hearts must realise this; so, if nothing else, he is guilty of leading his members astray by encouraging them to think that they could get annual pay rises for no extra work. Only under-investment, due in large part to the withdrawal of funding from the foreign-owned banks, outstrips the impediments to growth in Barbados. Even here Sir Roy could have made a contribution by pressuring the government to establish a credit union/trade union/ post office/mutual retail balance sheet bank to outmanoeuvre the foreign-owned financial behemoths.
This is not a personal attack on Sir Roy; however, the person at the helm must take the blame if the ship runs aground. Whatever Sir Roy’s professional and operational shortcomings, his real dis-service to the Barbadian people is in his obstruction to proper labour reform in order to mend the deep structural problems such as improving competitiveness which are inhibiting the nation’s economic growth. His juvenile tantrums, such as throwing his toys out of the pram when he was not selected for an International Labour Organisation soiree, can be put down to the over-sized ego of someone who believes his own publicity.
The reality is that the Barbadian labour market is not functioning well, some may say not functioning at all, and this is largely to do with the lack of proper national debate and of the over-dependence on weak politicians. Public sector labour/management relations have long been in need of reform in order to improve productivity and grow the economy and just for good administrative governance. But aggressive and confrontational industrial relations – remember the Alexandra School debacle in which Ms Redman, the union leader came over like a possessed Amazon? – can often get in the way of progressive decentralising decision-making.
Why should some jobsworth in Bay Street tell experienced head teachers how to run their schools? Why is it that a head, acting as in loco parentis, should speak out on the safety of the children in his care only to be told by some semi-robotic civil servant not to speak to the press?
It is this old paradigm that is badly in need of restructuring, removing some of the luddites, such as Sir Roy, and bringing in new faces with fresh ideas and a new form of dynamism. The other stumbling block is the corporatist nonsense of the Social Partnership, which many people who ought to know better believe is a positive step for Barbados, it has even been called the key to the Barbados model. This excuse for poor government should have been removed long time ago and the elected governments should have forced to get on with the job of governing. They did not because they did not know how. In the end, after years of service, Sir Roy’s lasting legacy will be one of failure, of sitting on top of a simmering volcano when it was about to erupt. He was a poor replacement for men of the calibre of Walcott and Blunt, his boisterous, confrontational, almost juvenile management style was out of place in contemporary trade unionism.