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BREAKING THE UNIONS?

Published: 
Sunday, September 9, 2018

DR HAMID GHANY

[email protected]

Is the current standoff between the Government and the trade union movement over the impending closure of the Petrotrin refinery operations an example of the Government trying to break the unions? Dr Rowley has timed this to take place during the PNM internal elections.

He has created an “enemy” against whom he can fight. Last week, Rowley was in a fighting mood at the PNM meeting in Marabella and it was clear that he has positioned himself as a potential “victim” for whom support must be garnered to fend off the actions of the unions which he deems to be detrimental to the State.

On the other side, the unions themselves have also been able to come together in a show of unity which has been rare for many years now. They were even able to get the support of the Leader of the Opposition, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, whom they were happy to help remove from office in 2015 when she was prime minister.

The difference with the political resistance to the People's Partnership government by the unions in the pre-2015 period and today is that the unions had the public and tacit support of a major political party (the PNM) that made them a potent force. In the current scenario, they have some major adjustments to make in converting Kamla Persad-Bissessar from their “enemy” of pre-2015 to their “friend” in 2018.

She herself will have to decide how she will engage them. Dr Rowley has decided how he will engage this struggle by putting the fear of God into the heart of every PNM supporter by saying that he is prepared to lose a general election and go out of power over this struggle at Petrotrin.

As a strategy, that is designed to make every die-hard PNM supporter stand up and choose between their party losing power or the unions winning this battle against the Government in respect of major paradigm shift for the PNM from promoting state control of the commanding heights of the economy to adopting a more right-wing approach to the state sector by selling off one of the “crown jewels”. Dr Rowley is counting on PNM supporters who are also members of trade unions to support the party, rather than their unions in this moment of struggle.

Outside of T&T, examples of such showdowns can be found in 1974 when UK Conservative Party Prime Minister Edward Heath called an early general election on the subject of “Who Governs Britain?” which resulted in a hung Parliament and Harold Wilson and the Labour Party returned to power. In 1979, UK Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan endured a “Winter of Discontent” and eventually lost a motion of no confidence 310-311 which led to a general election that was won by Conservative Leader Margaret Thatcher who became prime minister.

However, it was Thatcher who really took on the trade unions in the summer of 1984 in the miners' strike over the decision of the Government to roll out a number of planned colliery closures. Eventually, Thatcher prevailed and she broke the trade unions when the miners went back to work in 1985. In the 1980s, union membership declined drastically in the UK for at least two decades after that.

Edward Heath called an early election and lost after a hung Parliament outcome led to his resignation. Jim Callaghan decided not to call a general election before the winter of 1978-79 and after the “Winter of Discontent,” he lost the subsequent general election that had to be called after he lost the motion of no confidence against him. Margaret Thatcher was spoiling for a fight with the unions after winning the general election of 1983 so that she could break them and be able to govern without the fear of what they could do to her. She got her wish and emerged triumphant after a struggle as the 1984 miners' strike fizzled out into a return to work in 1985.

Dr Rowley finds himself in a similar position. Just as state power was used to break the unions in the UK in 1984-85, so too he is using state power in the current dispute. Cabinet Ministers, including the Prime Minister, have threatened workers with criminal action if they participated in last Friday's day of rest and reflection (this column was written before that). Will the unions be broken?

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