The Declining Power of Trade Unions


The bargaining power of trade unions in the Caribbean is being destroyed. In Trinidad and Tobago, recent media reports indicate that the Telecommunication Services of Trinidad and Tobago, and the Public Transport Service Corporation attempted to decertify the two large trade unions that represent their workers. Contrary to traditional trade union protest behavior, members were urged to, “demonstrate peaceful and respectful behavior at all times.” The move towards decertification of the unions can be viewed in the wider context of reports and studies from around the world which strongly suggest that we may be witnessing the demise of the Trade Union Movement.

The historical rise of the trade union in one country highlights the potential benefit of trade unions to the working class. In Trinidad and Tobago, the labor movement gained importance after World War I. During the 1930’s, living standards deteriorated as workers were laid off from the plantations. The situation was aggravated by unjust labor practices and low wages on the sugar estates and in the oil fields. This led to many strikes and riots between 1934 and 1937 in Trinidad and Tobago and throughout the Caribbean.

Tubal Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler, a Grenadian of African descent, emerged as the leader of the oil workers, the highest paid and most politicized laborers on the island. Butler called for fair labor practices for workers, and racial unity among the African and East Indian working class, and organized strikes against the major employers, with many incidents of racial violence, deaths, and injuries.  He is recognized today as a national hero who sensitized the workers about the oppression to which they were subjected.

The British responded to the struggle with military force, and by appointing two successive commissions to investigate the causes of the riots in Trinidad and Tobago and elsewhere in the Caribbean. The findings of the first commission were that wages were low and working conditions poor throughout the region. The second commission was very critical of the British colonial system in the Caribbean and recommended improvements that included housing construction, agricultural diversification, and more representative government for the islands. The struggle by the workers resulted in the formation of several trade unions and government representation for nationals.

Although some  blame can be directed at governments for undermining the power of trade unions, another view points to the need for unions to adopt new organizing tactics to suit a changing world. Today’s reality is that there is increasing private sector control of labor; employers engage in ‘union busting’ activities like external contracting and other sophisticated human resource management techniques that quell the desire for unionization. Fewer young people are attracted to unions, and the depressed global economy has not helped the situation.

To avoid a collapse of the trade union movement, and ultimately the power of the working class to seek their human rights, the experts advise that union practices have to be modified. Activists should seek partnership with employers instead of confrontation – a position that means strikes that were once common practice may have to be the absolute last course of action.