The broad rejection by public sector employees of the call by their trade union leader to stay away from work on Tuesday indicates that he is out of touch with public servants’ priority concerns.
Further, it signals the need for the labour movement to review the relevance and effectiveness of traditional negotiation strategies in an economic environment that demands much more of them.
The call by Watson Duke, president of the Public Services Association (PSA), for public servants to “take a day off” appears to have been a classic case of decision-making by vaps. As workers who were interviewed by this newspaper on Tuesday stated, it was taken without consultation with PSA members and lacked sensitivity to their priority concern of job security in the current climate of economic uncertainty. For many of the workers who ignored Mr Duke’s call, staying off the job was a risk they were not prepared to take at this time. At the Water and Sewerage Authority, where employees are bracing for possible massive job cuts related to an extensive restructuring exercise, workers were blunt in saying that they needed to protect their source of income.
It should be clear to Mr Duke that he overplayed his hand and in so doing has quite possibly undermined the bargaining position of the very workers the PSA represents. It is hard to imagine what he expected by pulling the “stay-home” card on an apparent whim. Perhaps he has stretched himself too thin by his duties as political leader of Tobago’s Progressive Democratic Patriots party.
Tuesday’s failed initiative is instructive not only for the PSA but for the labour movement as a whole. As the labour market shifts towards increasing oversupply with business closures and job losses, trade unions will find it more and more difficult to mobilise workers for mass action without the guarantee of worker solidarity. This does not necessarily mean a diminishing of the role of trade unions in the society since they have a very important role to play in representing workers, especially in an environment where market forces are tilting the balance of power against them.
However, the labour movement as a whole must come to grips with the changing nature and structure of the workforce. While some aspects have remained the same, others have been dramatically altered by technology and artificial intelligence, the clear shift towards contract labour over the past two and a half decades, the expansion of small and medium-sized businesses and the larger presence of women at every level, from the ground floor up to the executive suite, among others.
For a long time now the labour movement has needed to become introspective and recalibrate its mandate to more effectively represent its members in a world where some things change only to remain the same.
While there may always be opportunity for resorting to some of the old bargaining strategies, there is need to invent new methods in adapting to new realities. Given current economic conditions it seems foolhardy to provoke unnecessary confrontation when there is still a guaranteed place at the negotiation table.