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At last, common sense in union movement

Published: 
Sunday, September 30, 2018
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Labour column for Sunday Photo by:Marvin Smith

It was revealing to hear Seamen and Waterfront Workers’ Trade Union president Michael Annisette proposing a drastic staff reduction at the Port Authority.

His proposal, to lay off 475 out of 1,500 workers currently employed by PATT, is designed to avoid, as he put it, the demise of the port and the seabridge.

It doesn’t come without a sting in the tail, as his offer includes demands for full pension rights and a golden handshake to those who may go. It is a smart move as his ageing members can leave with a good cheque now, instead of reaching retirement age a bit later with just their pension and a little farewell party.

That is one of his jobs, though: to seek a good but realistic deal for his members.

What is more important is that Mr Annisette seems to have worked out an obvious, but often ignored point: an even bigger objective for a union leader is to make sure business, private or state-owned, is sound and viable for the longer term, or all jobs are lost.

Mr Annisette seems to be the only high-profile union leader in T&T who sees that it is better to make sure there are jobs for many than no jobs at all, even if that comes with some pain.

He must be all too aware of what happened to Arcelor Mittal workers when an intransigent Steel Workers’ Union and an aloof Industrial Court effectively made that business unviable. Or the sheer madness of OWTU’s leader Ancel Roget, celebrating the loss of manufacturing jobs in T&T when union leaders anywhere else, in the real world, would be fighting tooth and nail to retain and create more jobs, not the opposite.

The SWWTU leader’s move looked particularly mature and sensible when compared to the position adopted by his peer, Public Services Association leader Watson Duke, who continues to refuse to consider job reductions. We all know that taxpayers get a doubly bad deal: the state employs too many people who, in turn, do little for those who pay their wages.

Mr Annisette’s proposals are also an admission that our state-run operations are, by and large, inefficient and overstaffed. After all, if he claims the port can run with just over half of its current workforce, it is right to ask what the others do at work.

After all, the port’s productivity is appalling. Just for comparison, Port-of-Spain’s operations clock an average of 15 crane moves per hour. By contrast, Dubai’s operates at 130 movements per hour and still trails some Chinese ports.

Mr Annisette’s offer is worth considering, though. The Government should move quickly to seal a deal if it represents good value to taxpayers and take further steps to modernise PATT’s operations. We need to have modern, efficient and well-run ports if we are to improve our economy.

The Government has a golden opportunity to convert Mr Annisette’s proposal into the first solid move for much-needed reforms across the public sector, including staff reductions elsewhere.

As it does so, it could also look to strengthen current labour laws to make the retrenchment process clearer. As things stand, most employers, in the state and public sectors, would struggle to put forward proposals such as Mr Annisette’s.

The SWWTU’s proposals, based on the idea of retrenching those closer to retirement age, goes against the normal unions’ position (supported by Industrial Court judgments) that preference should first be given to LIFO—last in, first out—when it comes to retrenchment processes.

That means the longer you are employed; the more protected you are from retrenchment. Quite often, though, older workers wanting to leave with a good severance package are forced to stay, while younger ones keen to stay are forced out.

We should applaud Mr Annisette for at least daring to break ranks with the unions at such a crucial stage of our economic development. We need more mature and pragmatic trade unionism in Trinidad and Tobago. And that does not weaken their members, quite the opposite.

A lot more is achieved when industrial debate and proposals move away from empty slogans and the ideological wars of the past. The war unions and employers must fight, together, is the one to make T&T capable of succeeding in a fiercely competitive world, even if that means, in some cases, job losses.

Mr Annisette’s proposals offer some hope that this war can be fought with both union and business leaders on the same side.

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