Tue | Oct 17, 2017

Missing in action - Trade unions failing in mandate to provide political leaders, says Taylor

Published:Friday | February 17, 2017 | 12:00 AMWyvolyn Gager
Sociologist Dr Orville Taylor.
Jamaica Teachers’ Association president, Howard Isaacs.
Danny Roberts, head of the Hugh Lawson Shearer Institute for Trade Union Education.
Kavan Gayle, head of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union.
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Sociologist Dr Orville Taylor has accused the trade union movement of betraying its legacy in failing to provide the country with the next tier of political leaders.

Jamaican trade unions have strong historical links with politics and consistently provided leaders for the major parties. Demonstrating how far the movement has strayed from its roots, Taylor noted that for the first time since 1952, the People's National Party (PNP) has no representative from its affiliate, National Workers' Union (NWU), in Parliament. He sees that as failing its mandate to give workers a voice in Parliament.

Taylor, university lecturer and radio talk-show host who participated in a recent Gleaner Fourth Floor discussion about the relevance of trade unions, aimed scathing criticisms at the NWU in particular, noting that it was the first trade union to have voting rights in a political party guaranteed by its constitution. The Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) amended its constitution later, and now, it has a voice at the level of the central executive and the delegates' council.

He expressed disappointment at recent events in the NWU (a split between NWU and its surrogate Union Clerical, Administrative and Supervisory Employees - UCASE), which has resulted in what he described as an "implosion". When considering these two unions, he said that one is the oracle and the other is the ventricle as they were the heartbeat of the labour movement.

The ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) has labour stalwarts from the affiliated BITU like Pearnel Charles, 81, and Rudyard Spencer, 73, in Parliament today. But even with a much younger Kavan Gayle in the Senate, there is every indication that the BITU is also in need of generational renewal.

Then, taking aim at the current leadership of the University and Allied Workers' Union (UAWU), Taylor said that its mantra was that of independence, so much so that its founder, Trevor Munroe, never took a salary from the UAWU. The current UAWU boss, Lambert Brown, is a senator for the Opposition PNP (he declined an invitation to the forum).

Taylor continued: "So Lambert (Brown) can't say he is representing the union arm. He is there as an individual, representing his party. It's a pity he is not here, for he represents for me that classic example of you getting that basket of water to carry and you throw it away."

Having studied the labour movement extensively, and having had the benefit of being in the middle of the events that shaped the union at various levels, Taylor declared, "It's a betrayal."

 

Unions lack succession plan

 

Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) head Senator Kavan Gayle said that in order for the trade union movement to attract fresh talent, it has to appear and behave like a movement, working with one accord, treating with workers' issues and understanding that in the new world of work, it is more than just collective bargaining and handling grievances, but dealing with those issues that affect the workforce on a daily basis.

Danny Roberts, who heads the Hugh Lawson Shearer Institute for Trade Union Education, added that the first order of business is for unions to do some internal reorganisation.

"They have to refocus as to what their vision and mission are," he stressed during a Gleaner Fourth Floor discussion about the relevance of trade unions at the media house's North Street, Kingston, offices recently.

"They have to have in place a succession plan because when you view the landscape, you are not readily seeing the next generation of trade union leaders. The trade unions have to operate with a certain level of accountability, involvement, participation, and democracy. All of those things are critical."

 

NEED FOR WORKER EDUCATION

 

Worker education was identified as a critical component of the transformation of labour unions. Roberts offered a pathway to the future by suggesting this: "The world has changed, and the trade unions need to make that paradigm shift into a new global environment in which the trade unions have to recognise that what helps is global reach.

"They now have to go beyond Jamaica into the Caribbean, into the world, and establish connections and develop common global strategies through the global unions in order to benefit from their experience and educate themselves."

This kind of talk has been going on for a while, in fact, for decades, observed sociologist Dr Orville Taylor. He said that unions need to do more to attract college-educated personnel into their fold.

Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) president Howard Isaacs has been looking at the image of his association. Getting into schools to talk with the membership is one of the major tasks at hand.

"I am in the schools, and I am not there for grievance issues. I am simply there to connect with the members to do the education and to share with them about what the union is doing for them, and the support system that is in place," he explained.

A young teacher during the 1980s, Isaacs reminisced about the wisdom and stature of persons who held the education system together then.

"Many of them were stalwart principals like Isaac Henry, and all of those persons had something significantly special about them," he stated.

Stress at the workplace may get in the way of the JTA's agenda to prepare its leaders as Isaacs pointed out that many teachers are under stress and others are having challenges with illnesses such as diabetes and heart conditions.

"We are trying to see how best we can work with the National Health Fund and other agencies to put programmes in place so the teachers can be less stressed than they are now," Isaacs said.

The JTA understands its responsibility to prepare a new generation of leaders to take the reins, he said.

"We must ensure that we have people with credibility, and our leaders must be those that other teachers can look up to," said educator Byron Farquharson, who is a past president of the JTA.