'Cut-throat strikes no longer fashionable'
As the local labour movement seeks to reinvent itself, a new kind of conversation is taking place in boardrooms across Jamaica, with emphasis on partnership, equity, and efficiency. Danny Roberts, who heads the Hugh Lawson Shearer Trade Union Education Institute, sees it as a sign of maturity.
"The trade unions have matured dramatically to recognise that the industrial relations system now is built upon two primary pillars - equity and efficiency," Roberts stated recently during a Gleaner Fourth Floor Forum at the media house's North Street, Kingston, office.
He cited the ever-increasing signs of cooperation between workers and management, as well as unions and management, adding that when there is consultation in the industrial practice of a company, it is better off.
The discussions with union leaders relating to the movement's relevance delved into the heritage of unions and the significant role they have played in improving labour standards and workers' rights, as well as their contribution to politics, democracy, and social justice.
ADVERSARIAL APPROACH ARCHAIC
There was agreement among the union bosses that the adversarial approach of the 1930s, '40s, '50s, and '60s was not appropriate in today's environment.
So how much have unions changed since the 1930s?
Reform has been significant, as seen through the eyes of Bustamante Industrial Trade Union head, Senator Kavan Gayle.
"The adversarial, cut-throat strike is no longer fashionable, and we are moving to an era where there is social dialogue built on partnership, engagement and continuous consultation ... [a] setting up work councils so that when you come to the table, you are not dealing with collective bargaining but you are dealing with strategic planning of the business," he said.
Gayle said that trade unions and their leaders have to understand that this is the direction of the future.
"You have to foster that type of social dialogue, continuously coming to the table to discuss the strategies of the organisation and discuss improved efficiency," he said.
Roberts agreed that this change in outlook was important in light of the recognition of labour as an important part of the development process. For example, the trade union movement has been recognised in Jamaica's agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a critical component in its pursuit of economic stability.
Scared workers affecting trade union membership
Although the trade union movement in Jamaica continues to reinvent itself, putting aside outdated approaches and adopting an enlightened outlook that includes a more mature level of negotiation, its membership is not what it once was. But why is this?
Senator Kavan Gayle, head of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union, feels the unions have failed to penetrate certain sectors because of the "precarious nature of employment". Sectors like tourism, BPO and security were cited.
With the introduction of flexible contracts and terms of employment, workers in these sectors are scared of losing their jobs, so they are reluctant to get organised. Gayle said there has to be a campaign against the nature of precarious employment.
Anti-union sentiment is sometimes triggered by critics who say unions are not concerned about standards or productivity.
Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) President Howard Isaacs was asked to respond to the well-worn argument that his union is only interested in securing better wages for its teachers and doesn't care about standards or classroom results.
"I will simply say that is not true," retorted Isaacs. "We are very concerned about standards and quite a number of developments in education have had the input of the JTA."
MASTER TEACHER INITIATIVE
He cited the Master Teacher initiative as one that the JTA worked with the Government to develop the concept. In addition, he said training is a regular feature of the teachers' union.
"We train young leaders. We train those who are already in the system. We offer scholarships and we even support those who are going into retirement."
Isaacs acknowledged that there is the perception that the JTA had set its face against performance-linked pay. His colleague and former JTA president, Byron Farquharson, argued that when dealing with human development, it is very difficult to objectively quantify the value and impact of a teacher. He posed the question: "The fact that somebody doesn't pass an exam or does, indeed, pass an examination, is it because of or in spite of?"
Social commentator and university lecturer Dr Orville Taylor gave a detailed overview of how some schools manage to secure good results by not entering all eligible students but only those whom they believe will pass exams.
But the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate should not be the only measure of success, said Taylor, as he pointed to credible performances by institutions like NCTVET.
Having visited a number of schools and observed the glaring gaps in resources, he declared, "Far more schools are doing better with the little that they have than one would think."
Isaacs said that teacher associations are coming under pressure because education is seen as a critical component of neo-liberal philosophy. However, he cautioned, "You can't talk about performance-based pay in the context where inequity exists in terms of resources and equipment."