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Trade Unionism in Trinidad and Tobago

Trade Unionism in Trinidad and Tobago: Phases in Development


Three phases in development can be discerned in the case of Trade Unions in Trinidad and Tobago: Tobago: 1. The first is the period of formation and mobilisation from the early 1930s to independence. 2. The second phase was the post independence period when the relationship between the state and the labour movement assumed a legal character in an often hostile environment.

3. Thirdly the period of SAPs which focused on the role of the trade union at industry, as an activist in promoting flexibility, efficiency and productivity.

The first period


 In the first two decades of the twentieth century the colony of Trinidad was characterised by conditions of unemployment, high inflation, poor working conditions, maltreatment of workers and deplorable health standards. This period was considered as the precursor to a watershed period of labour unrest in the 1930s

 On the sugar plantations working conditions were deplorable, unemployment was rampant, low wages prohibited the purchase of basic consumption goods, the industrial climate was marred by retrenchment and lay-offs, the two layfactories had lowered expenditure on wages by 70% and 40% respectively, the constabulary (police) aggravated the situation by adopting repressive measures (firing into crowds, random arrests of labourers), at times filling the local jail house (Basdeo 1983: 114)

 In addition to internal conditions, external conditions also generated the spirit and vigour for workers action.  Externally, the growth of democratic ideals, socialism, trade union recognition and industrial unrest gave a new outlook to the workers in Trinidad.  During the early years of the twentieth century the major labour organisation to provide a voice for labour was the Trinidad Workingmen's Association (TWA).

 During this period industrial relations and trade unionism were at their embryonic stage. No labour codes or collective bargaining procedures were established, the mass of sugar workers acted independently of the TWA  Although a Trade Union Ordinance was passed in 1932, at the insistence of Lord Passfield, this law did not include provisions for peaceful picketing and did not protect the unions against actions of tort. As such only five (small) unions were registered between 1932-1937 (Jacobs: 19321971:15).

 It was against this background of deplorable socio-economic conditions and socioa poor industrial climate that the mass of workers mobilised in 1934-38 period. The 1934political system was that of an employeremployeroriented administration representing imperial interest and the local business class (Ramdin 1982:85)[1].

 The objectives of labour were both political and industrial. Labour demands included immunity for trade unions from claims for damages resulting from strike, immunity from charges of conspiracy, the right to peaceful picketing, minimum wage legislation, the forty-hour week, old age fortypension, national health insurance and sickness benefit.

 Political demands included British West Indian Federation, universal adult suffrage for a local assembly, a curtailment to the powers of the governor, free compulsory elementary education, nationalisation of the sugar industry and state ownership of public utilities (Greenwood and Hamber 1981: 27)

 This is an important juncture since it ushered in a period when the struggle for better working conditions and higher pay was tied to political demands. It begins as well the confluence of an industrial and political agenda by the trade union movement.  However the reformist approach to trade unionism was premised upon restricting union activities to economic issues, rulerulemaking and mediation of conflict which confined trade unions to the workplace

 The reformist approach presented a sharp ideological divide within labour leadership. By confining union activity to the workplace amidst an expanding industrial workforce giving rise to the emergence of the industrial union model. Reddock noted that this model transformed the labour movement into a trade union movement.

 The British government had appointed the Foster Commission (1938) to investigate the disturbances. The Commission reported that there was a regrettable absence of consultative and negotiating machinery to address labour management problems.

 The Industrial Court, although enacted by Ordinance in 1920, was not constituted, a Department of Labour was not established, although recommended by the Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1935, there was widespread violation of ILO conventions on minimum wages and working conditions and there was no means of addressing grievances through collective bargaining machinery (Sultan-Khan 1982:68-75). (Sultan1982:68-

 The Foster Commission recommended the enactment of laws to protect trade unions from actions for damages arising from strikes, legislation guaranteeing peaceful picketing, the compulsory registration of trade unions and the establishment of a Labour Department responsible for conciliation between union and employer and for taking up the grievances of unorganised workers

 The period 1937-45, described as the 1937formative years were characterised by a mushrooming of trade unions. The British government actively pursued the encouragement of trade unions along the responsible union model based upon collective bargaining and the goal of maintaining industrial peace.

 In 1937 there were six major trade unions in Trinidad.  The Amalgamated Building and Woodworkers Union, reg. 1936;  The Federated Workers Trade Union, reg. 1937  The Oilfield Workers Trade Union, reg. 1937  The Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union, reg. 1937  The Public Works and Public Service Workers Trade Union, reg. 1937  The All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factories Workers Trade Union, reg. 1937 (Ramdin 1982:143).

 This number had increased to forty by 1951 and sixty-four in 1958. The British sixtygovernment also provided support to the local labour movement with the intent on orienting West Indian trade unionists to the practice and norms of the TUC in London. London.  The period was also characterised by the strengthening of trade union-political party unionalliances in the British West Indies.

 Trinidad and Tobago differed in that while the unionists offered themselves for high political office, by the 1950s it was a growing middle class group of politicians who captured the imagination and votes of the electorate. Such intellectual personalities as historian Dr. Eric Williams and a mathematician Dr. Rudranath Capideo came to dominate the political stage, both with the support of trade union constituencies.

The Independence Era and the ISA/IRA


 At the pre independence period the government of the Peoples National Movement (PNM) embarked upon a mixed economy approach to capitalist development.  This development strategy was based on the belief that Anglo-American finance capital was Angloessential to development. Government adopted the industrialisation by invitation programme based on the Puerto Rican model.

 This required inducing foreign capital by a favourable taxation and business environment.  At full independence in 1962 this development strategy would lead, according to the government, into an operations job program which was meant to absorb employment into selected non-agricultural sectors, such as power nonand water supply, communications, health and education.  Such a privately financed industrialisation scheme was premised upon attracting external sources of funds through investment, loans and development aid (Ramdin 1982:186).

 The economic benefits of this approach were however negligible, between the period 1962-1967 capital investment fell 1962by 13% from $ 295 mn to $ 255 mn[1] mn[1] (Ryan 1972: 387). The results in terms of jobs were unflattering and operation jobs never materialised.  In this period the exchange rate was US $ 1 = TT $ 2.

 When the privately financed industrialisation program failed to deliver jobs, the state sector expanded rapidly and came to the rescue.  However unemployment increased from 6% in 1956 to 15% in 1966, albeit in a labour market that was growing at 4% per year (Ryan 1972).  In 1963 it was estimated that unemployment had reached 90,000 (Ramdin 1982:187,199).

 Against the background of massive unemployment there had been no significant attempt by the new independent government to curtail the abusive powers of employers and better the wages and working conditions of those employed.  The dissatisfaction of labour at the failure of the state to improve its plight was overt and extensive. While in 1957 striking workers had numbered only 400, between 19601960-1964 the number of workers involved in some 230 strikes stood at 74,475

 Industrial action was on the rise in such industries as sugar, oil, the public utilities, construction and the transport and communication sectors.  The response to such industrial conflict was to embark upon a course of decisive state intervention in industrial relations.  The state intervened to quell industrial action and to provide a stable environment which would minimise uncertainty and allow for economic planning.

 By 1965 the state assumed a role as mediator, umpire and rule maker to prepare the social and economic climate for rapid industrialisation. Trinidad and Tobago had at this historical juncture abandoned the laissez faire voluntary policy towards industrial relations and began a period characterised by a process of legalistic system of industrial relations.

 A state of emergency was declared in March 1965 and the government passed, in one sitting, the controversial Industrial Stabilisation Act (ISA No. 8 of 1965).  The ISA was enacted with great haste, it was debated for only two days and was passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate on 19th March 1965, and assented to on 20th March 1965 (Chaudhary 1977:124).

 The ISA was used to clamp down on industrial action. However, the government was also aiming to deal with what were defined as subversive elements i.e. leftist activists in the trade union movement.  The ISA represented the states attempt to regain social control by institutionalising industrial relations.

 However industrial peace was short lived. A worsening social and economic climate coupled with unrelenting struggle and protests by trade unionists, the parliamentary opposition and university students ushered in what became known as the Black Power Demonstrations of 1970.

 The government was able to ride out the storm. In the aftermath, with the industrial relations scene still in pieces a new Industrial Relations Act 1972 (IRA No. 23 of 1972) was introduced.  Chaudhary notes that the change from Industrial Stabilisation to Industrial Relations is simply a change in terminology and not a change in substance so far as the provisions relating to the system of compulsory arbitration for the settlement of industrial disputes are concerned (1977: 139) 

 At the end of this last phase of legal intervention the state maintained the right to confer legal status on unions, determine their bargaining units, subject disputes to compulsory arbitration, issue binding decisions and legally stop strike action.  The oil boom came as a boon to the government which was shaky in the early 1970s. The state suddenly had much more resources with which to effect a redistribution via several welfare programs.

 The membership of the trade unions increased markedly in the 1970s.  The early 1980s can be considered as the high point in union membership. In the 19791979-82 period the Industrial Court registered a record 600 collective agreements. While 40 trade unions were registered in 1951, by 1982 this number had moved to 101

 At the enterprise level poor labour management relations, abusive management practices and violations of existing collective agreements all contributed to heighten industrial action. In fact 30% more disputes were reported in the period 1972-1979 compared to the 1972period 1965-1972. Most of the work 1965stoppages were in the sugar and oil industries.

 The escalation in industrial conflict and struggles on the political front led to the labour movement intervening directly in the political process.  A more militant trade union movement encompassing the leftist Council of Progressive Trade Unions (CPTU) was instrumental in forging a union based political party, the United Labour Front (ULF).

 The ULF won 10 seats (in a 36 seat Legislature) in the 1976 general election.  However, splits over ideology, personality, organisation and program saw this movement decline in the late 1970s.  It is significant that this was the first trade union based political party to emerge with any degree of success on the political stage.

 Two major union Confederations were firmly established by the 1970s, the leftist CPTU, founded in 1972 included the traditionally militant OWTU and was affiliated to the WFTU and the Trinidad and Tobago Labour Congress (TTLC), founded in 1966 and affiliated to the ICFTU and the Caribbean Congress of Labour (CCL)  According to Trade Unions of The World, by 1991 the CPTU had 12 affiliates with a membership of 28,000, while the TTLC had a membership of 58,811 and included 4 of the largest trade unions in Trinidad and Tobago.

Trade Unions and Structural Adjustment


 The expansion in trade union membership came as a result of the increased levels of employment in the state sector and legislative support i.e. protection in law, the check-off checksystem, compulsory recognition.  However by the early 1980s, in the aftermath of the oil boom another dire set of economic circumstances were to have a severe impact upon trade union membership and growth.

 The period of prosperity ended in the early 1980s due to a combination of factors such as (i) the drastic reduction in the price of oil; (ii) the reduction in local crude production; (iii) high levels of expenditure on imports and (iv) substantial increases in net outflows.  Trinidad and Tobago had also failed to diversify its economy with the oil revenues and remained in a mono-culture dependency characteristic of monoplantation economies.  The economy remained vulnerable to world oil prices which provided for government revenue, foreign exchange to finance imports and service the debt.

 Unemployment increased from 10% in 1982 to 17% in 1986 and rose to 22% in 1989.  Unemployment increased from 10% in 1982 to 17% in 1986 and rose to 22% in 1989.  This paved the way for privatisation and divestment of state assets (a process still in train in 1998), trade liberalisation, removal of the negative list and the lifting of restrictions on the importation of subsidised foreign goods

 Between 1985-1993, 1,694 businesses 1985went out of operation and 6,698 workers were retrenched in the private and public sectors  In 1992 the Minister of Labour reported to the ILO that 10,000 cases of retrenchment were reported to his Ministry between 19861986-1990

 The situation was further aggravated by many employer initiated measures such as the wage freeze (1983), the removal of cost of living allowance (COLA) (1987), a 10% cut in wages and salaries (1989), excessive retrenchment with or without severance pay, lockouts and the replacement of collective agreements by individual contracts.

 The impact of industrial restructuring intrinsic to adjustment programs meant that there were closures of businesses, retrenchment and downsizing in the public and private sector.  In the early 1990s the number of collective agreements registered at the Industrial Court often number less than 100 

 By June 1988 there were 126 unions registered under the Trade Union Act (1950). Only 25 of these were actively involved in representing workers by way of an enforceable collective agreement and dispute processing mechanisms (Ramsubeik 1990:99).  As at December 1997 the Ministry of Labour listed the number of trade unions as 104.  Thirty unions/associations were dissolved or cancelled between 1992-1997. 1992-

 In the period of adjustment, during the 1980s and 1990s the business environment and a wrecked labour market played havoc with the trade union movement.  Unlike earlier periods when the law and administrative instruments imposed control and discipline upon unions, the economic and new labour market conditions intervened to serve the same purpose by weakening organised labour.

 This happened as the state passed the levers of control over to the private sector and retreated from an active, intervening role in the productive sector to that of facilitator in the national economy.  The incidence of privatisation, business closures and retrenchment which followed from opening up the economy to competition had an adverse effect on union membership and industrial relations outcomes, such as wage and employment freezes.

 Today the unions are on the back-foot backfending off attacks on job security and wages.  However there is also a contradiction in that although one observes the decline in membership and loss of ascendancy at the workplace, there is a growing willingness to listen to and involve trade unions in a broader economic and social role.

 In conclusion, three phases can be discerned in the historical development of Trade Unions in the case of Trinidad and Tobago.  The first is the period of formation and mobilisation from the early 1930s to independence. The accent then was on the industrial and political struggles of unions. The crown colonial establishment encouraged and tolerated a union movement which was perceived as having a useful role to play in maintaining industrial stability and increasing production.

 The second phase was the post independence period when the relationship between the state and the labour movement assumed a legal character in an often hostile environment.  And finally the period of SAPs which focused on the role of the trade union at industry, as an activist in promoting flexibility, efficiency and productivity. Here the emphasis is on union involvement at industry in enterprise policy making and at tripartite foray in drafting national social and labour legislation.

 While it is possible to identify shifts in industrial relations patterns and changing roles of the unions (from political to economic and back to political), these are responses to state policy which shifts back and forth in response to political and economic developments (Adams 1994:59).