Via IPS News
By Peter Richards
PORT OF SPAIN, Jun 16, 2011 (IPS) – What a difference a year makes. Less than a month after she led the five-party coalition to a convincing victory in the 2010 general election, Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar became the first head of government to address a Labour Day rally in Trinidad and Tobago.
Now, as the trade unions gather to observe Labour Day here Sunday, they have sent out a stern warning to the prime minister and her colleagues that they are not welcome in Fyzabad, in the south of the island, where the Labour Day rally will take place this year under the theme ‘No Justice to Workers, No Industrial Peace’.
The trade unions are upset that the People’s Coalition government – which includes the labour- dominated Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) headed by labour minister and veteran trade unionist Errol McLeod as well as the President of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and Non Government Organisations (FITUN) David Abdullah, now a government legislator – has not treated workers better than previous administrations.
Last September the unions said they were forced to present McLeod with a list of demands as part of their effort to bring their “workers’ agenda” to the fore of the government’s priorities – after claiming that letters sent to the government had been ignored.
President of the militant Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU), Ancel Roget, said that the government, and more so the prime minister, must remember that it was the arrogance of her predecessor, Patrick Manning, which led to the downfall of his government on May 24 last year.
“We expected more from them and we have been betrayed,” Roget told a news conference as the trade unions outlined their plans for Labour Day. “We did not go to them, they came to us asking for labour support. We said we would support anything that supported the interest of working people. To date we have had a serious betrayal of the trust of labour.”
Vincent Caberra, the general secretary of the National Trade Union Centre (NATUC), the umbrella grouping for several unions here, recalled that during the campaign for the general election last year, the labour movement had pledged its full support to the opposition parties which culminated with the signing of the historic accord that led to the formation of the People’s Partnership.
We see that the same leader “for whom we purchased a birthday cake” last year now saying “she is not scared of unions”, Caberra said.
He said what labour wants is for the prime minister “to listen to the trade union movement and to respond to what we are saying”. He accuses the government of establishing inter-ministerial committees that are “interfering, monitoring and determining what is supposed to go on the negotiating table”.
But Bissessar, whose government has already had to deal with public strikes and demonstrations from civil servants, police, teachers, and prison as well as fire officers, has publicly indicated to the unions that she will not bow down to their demands, adding that the tone being set for the Labour Day activities is nothing new.
“They have always done that on Labour Day so I don’t think there is anything new this year. They are free and entitled to put forward the views of their members,” she told reporters, adding, “we have a duty to all the people of Trinidad and Tobago and we will continue to discharge our duty in their best interests given the circumstances that we find ourselves in terms of our economy at this time.”
The trade unions are also upset that the government has limited wage increases for public workers to five percent over a three-year period – a situation they said could also influence negotiations within the private sector.
The government has been claiming that when it assumed office, it had to implement policies to deal with a bad economy, but less than a year later Finance Minister Winston Dookeran was informing the nation that a “blue sky” is replacing “dark clouds” over the local economy.
Moreover the unions claim that hundreds of workers within several social programmes – such as the Community-Based Environmental Protection and Enhancement Programme (CEPEP) and the Unemployment Relief Programme (URP) – have been fired since the new government came to power.
Roget said that Labour Day would provide for a public analysis of the government’s performance since the May 24 election victory last year.
“Workers did not vote for what is happening now,” he told reporters, “workers are voters who transcend constituency boundaries. They are the largest constituency and the government has to recognise this.”
The government scored a major victory a few weeks ago when the Public Service Association (PSA), the main public sector union, broke ranks and accepted the five percent wage increase for its members.
“I think the settlement of the PSA talks was a big feat accomplished by this government,” said economist Indera Sagewan-Ali.
“But for the near future, the rest of the labour movement is very unhappy, and is unwilling to settle for a similar offer,” said Indera Sagewan-Ali. “The government has jumped one hurdle, but the industrial relations climate will be very choppy.”
PSA President Watson Duke, who is facing calls for his resignation, says he has no plans to attend the Labour Day rally, adding that “dinosaur” trade unionists who have been criticising his decision to sign the agreement would have nothing much to tell workers.
“There are bogus trade unionists out there who are wearing sheep’s clothing,” Duke said, even as leaders of other trade unions were encouraging the PSA membership to defy Duke and participate in the Labour Day activities.
“All public servants, all workers in the public service in Trinidad and Tobago are invited, whether your union signed an unfair agreement of five percent or not,” Roget said.