Sun | Sep 24, 2017

Editorial: After Caven and Dobson

Published:Friday | October 16, 2015 | 10:00 AM

We don't know how attuned they were to emerging thinking about their sector. If they were, Hopeton Caven and Clive Dobson might have had a sense of vindication about their life's work.

Messrs Dobson and Caven died within the past fortnight, aged 80 and 87, respectively, each having served for more than half a century in the trade union movement. It is perhaps more a reflection of the state of trade unions in Jamaica today than the real stature or importance of either man that their passing appears to have so little affected public consciousness. From a purely politico-historic perspective, they deserve attention.

The Trade Union Congress (TUC), the labour union for which Mr Caven was, for several decades, general secretary, may now be a merely limping institution, but it has a critical place in Jamaica's history. It was created in the 1940s from the merger of several small unions when Alexander Bustamante exited the People's National Party (PNP), taking with him the trade union that bore his name. Thus, in that period of political unionism, the TUC became the PNP's, as was/is the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP).

The TUC was to be part of another split-off when in 1952, its leader, Ken Hill, was among the 'Four Hs' purged from the PNP for allegedly operating a Marxist cell within the party. This was the cause of the creation of the PNP's affiliate, the National Workers' Union (NWU), which Mr Dobson eventually served as president. Significantly, both men maintained lifelong affiliations with the PNP.

But they also presided over their unions at a time of dramatic decline of the labour movement in Jamaica and internationally. At present, less than a fifth - below half the number of two decades ago - of Jamaica's employed labour is unionised. And the vast majority of union members are government employees such as civil servants, teachers, nurses, and the police. The retreat of private-sector employees from union representation is in an environment where governments have maintained a liberal attitude towards workers' rights.

 

poor economic performance

 

Part of the problem for Jamaica's unions has been the country's poor economic performance over a long time, placing jobs at premium, thereby weakening the bargaining power of workers. Further, new technologies are changing the nature of work, and with it, the quality of the engagement between employee and employer. Globalisation, too, has affected this relationship.

Unfortunately, Jamaica's trade unions have not offered a clear intellectual response to the new paradigm. If anything is said, it has been to rant against neo-liberal economics, and, to their credit, compromise with Government on wages in its fiscal containment strategy. New research, responding to worsening income inequality in advanced countries and highlighted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), suggests that trade unions can help to redress this imbalance.

"While causality is difficult to establish, the decline in unionisation appears to be a key contributor to the rise of top-income shares," said researchers Florence Jaumotte and Carolina Osorio Buiton.

Such assertions out of the IMF will be music to trade unionists, including those in Jamaica, but they can't presume it is a call to the old muscled order of the labour movement, if it s to assume a new relevance.

There is much intellectual work for the successor of Messrs Caven and Dobson to do.