Local trade unions have been urged never to give up the struggle of improving the working and living conditions of workers and to fight for inclusion in nation building. The advice came during a glittering open session of the National Workers Union (NWU) Annual Congress of Delegates Sunday at the Royal St. Lucian Resort and Spa.
Held under the theme “Trade unions must be included in national development” delegates received a lesson in the roles trade unions should play in these changing times, due to technological advancements, cultural penetration and vertical and lateral consolidation of corporate entities.
Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Dr Ralph Gonsalves, who delivered the feature address, Colin Jordan, Minister for Labour and Social Partnership Relations in Barbados and Solace Myers, NWU’s Deputy President General, were the ones dishing out the lessons learned by the NWU’s delegates that day.
But the day was not all only about the importance of social dialogue and the need for trade unions to participate and call for such dialogues to take place between government and the people. It was also a time where the NWU recognized the stellar contributions of 12 persons in the fields of media, human rights and the country’s economic, social and financial development.
Some notable persons were recognized such as local finance expert Mr George Theophilus, who received a lifetime achievement award for his contribution to St. Lucia’s Economic, Social and Financial Development.
Lifetime awards were presented to Sam ‘Juke Bois’ Flood for introducing creole programmes in the media in St. Lucia; Rick Wayne for championing journalism in the country; Guy Ellis for outstanding contribution to journalism in St. Lucia; Dave Samuels for outstanding contribution to journalism and media production in St. Lucia; Earl Bousquet for outstanding contribution to journalism in St. Lucia; Mary Francis for advocating and defending human rights in the country; Ernie Seon for outstanding contribution to journalism in St. Lucia; Lissa Joseph for her contribution to journalism in St. Lucia; Lawrence Adonis for outstanding contribution to creole performance in the media in St. Lucia; Timothy Poleon for outstanding contribution to journalism in St. Lucia; and Micah George for outstanding contribution to journalism in St. Lucia.
The messages imparted by the speakers never overshadowed the good feeling had by all, but in fact appeared to draw delegates closer as they appeared to be tingling over Gonsalves reminder that the business of trade unions is not only to represent the interest of workers, but also to play a role in the developmental process of the country — and the need to unionize the classes of workers that trade unions may not have done enough to afford representation, such as domestic workers.
Gonsalves’ time at the podium was sprinkled with uproarious moments as delegates, honorees, present and past governors general, members of the diplomatic corps and other invitees lapped up his every word.
Minister Jordan believed the theme for the Congress was timely, taking into consideration how cultural penetration is changing the countries of the region, affecting the way the people work and the way they relate to other people.
“It is making our Caribbean societies less personal and more transactional,” he said, noting that in these changing times discussions focus less on people and more on outcomes.
“Focusing on outcomes is not the issue but focusing on outcomes to the detriment or understanding what it does to people becomes the issue. Our challenge is to maintain a people culture while acknowledging the necessity for economic growth and development,” Jordan said.
He referenced the economic situation in Barbados, where his party won all the seats in parliament. It had to go to the IMF for financial assistance and the downsizing of its public service, saying that was due to a lack of meaningful social dialogue with the people, which he said must be acknowledged as partners in nation building.
“I urge you to continue to protect and defend the social economic, educational, cultural and political interest of the workers of St. Lucia,” Jordan told delegates reminding them that while coming together is a beginning and keeping together is progress, working together is success.
“Trade unions must be included in the process of nation building. You have to fight for it, agitate for it and embrace the role. You must move beyond collective bargaining for pay and improve conditions and move to strategizing at the national level,” Jordan said.
Myers spoke of a new reality of a sustained attack on the trade union movement that in some cases threatened the complete roll-back of benefits gained over the last 60 years by trade unions.
“In response, unions, along with global labour organizations such as UNI Global Union, the International Transport Union, and the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers Association, of which the NWU is affiliated, continue in the struggle, shining a light, giving a voice to those who have none,” she said.
With regards to St. Lucia, she said there has been some progress, as the NWU has been able to successfully mobilize workers in the finance, local government and manufacturing sectors “continuing in the path of those before us seeking a live-able wage and decent work conditions for all.”
This year marks the 45th anniversary of the NWU. That’s 45 years of consistent representation which has positively impacted the lives of everyday working people.
According to Myers this unwavering commitment to the betterment of society has allowed for the benefits achieved by NWU representation to be felt not only by members but by extension their families, communities and society as a whole.
“Make no mistake, the contributions of the NWU and the labour movement, as a whole, have reinforced the foundations upon which we now stand. Dreams were fulfilled, goals were accomplished and minds were elevated to the possibility of achieving better,” she said.
“Comrades, we are well aware of the impact of the movement. We have also recognized that traditional tactics alone will not suffice as the world of work is continually adjusting to accommodate a new reality, rightfully so, as these technologies and approaches bring conveniences which my grandparents probably never imagined. However, as stated previously, these advancements come at a cost.
“We have seen all too often, where institutions have shifted operations from one island to the next or the introduction of new technology or restructuring exercises which have left good employees out of work. We have also witnessed the reshaping of our local economy to accommodate a more service oriented environment with Tourism taking center stage. We have recently joined other islands with the introduction of the Citizenship by Investment Programme (CIP).
“We also have to consider the implication of policy decisions by world leaders which have the potential to make or break our local economies for example, the implications of England’s exit from the European Union commonly known as Brexit or the impact on climate change issues since the United States has pulled out of the Paris Agreement or the impact of international finance regulations which in the last two years has seen St. Lucia along with other islands blacklisted.
“The conversation must now expand as these developments bring a whole new dimension to how we do business, how we are seen globally and the readiness of our people to take St. Lucia to the next level. The discussion regarding our nation’s future must take into consideration all stakeholders,” she added.
The Deputy President General said that her role and that of her colleagues as trade unions can no longer be limited to just collective bargaining but rather must also include dialogue with government on the way forward for the country.
“Our contributions and continued efforts are too important to be continually left out of dialogue particularly at national levels especially following the 2008 financial crisis. We need to go beyond the occasional meeting or seminar with entities that are only interested in advancing their respective agendas. Our members come from all backgrounds, and this gives us a unique vantage point.
“With almost 6000 members from various sectors, industry and government, our membership is a microcosm of society. These same members are also citizens and it is our duty to ensure that their interests are represented and protected at all levels. Unions have been fundamental to the development of nations. Not only here in the Caribbean, but North America, Europe and England all have strong labour movement histories and influences. Though there has been an active push to downplay and in some instances conveniently forget our contributions, they are forever etched in the benefits many still enjoy to this day,” Myers said.