THE Government’s selection of the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union’s subsidiary as its preferred buyer for the Pointe-a-Pierre refinery is a path-breaking development for which the union must be congratulated.
Assuming the bid by Patriotic Energies and Technologies Co Ltd progresses to the point of being signed and sealed, it offers the very real potential of transforming the trade union sector and, ultimately, the base of the national economy.
Judging from the details of the short-listed bids, Patriotic had no real competition. An offer of upfront cash of US$700 million coupled with industry experience and worker support were elements strongly in its favour. Its bid indicated that the OWTU was intent on winning and put in an offer that would be almost impossible to refuse. Patriotic now has one month to put flesh on its proposal with, among other things, evidence of its ability to finance the purchase.
Public response to Friday’s announcement has been intriguing, with a mixture of cheering and cynicism. Notwithstanding Patriotic’s strong bid, many see its selection as a calculated political move by the Government. This probably explains the Opposition Leader’s rather odd statement which seemed not to recognise that Patriotic is a company created by the OWTU for the specific purpose of the bid.
The political value was not lost on the Government either. Energy Minister Franklin Khan, who had been dismissive of the union’s initial plan to lease the refinery, was quick to list the potential benefits, seeing a recovery from the fallout of the Government’s abrupt shutdown of Petrotrin with the revitalisation of south Trinidad and a revamping of the refining sector with “huge employment” and a multiplier effect. There is some irony in the fact the Government should be looking to the OWTU to undo some of the damage wrought by the manner in which it engaged the Petrotrin shutdown. It is inevitable that the politicisation of the issue will intensify over the election campaign season.
However, assuming the refinery sale to Patriotic is consummated, the implications could be game-changing. Such a deal would give labour a real as opposed to a token stake in a strategic national enterprise and provide an opportunity for trade unions to demonstrate their capacity for running a complex business up to the standard they have long demanded from others.
It also presents an opportunity for introducing a business model that combines effective worker participation with efficient management. This is the opportunity that trade unions have long needed for re-inventing and re-engineering themselves for the more nimble environment of the 21st century economy. Admittedly, there are few examples of successful trade union-owned businesses.
However, at the price of US$700 million, the OWTU’s Patriotic will have minimal margin for error. The purchase of a refinery might be just business for another bidder but for the OWTU it is a matter of survival.
That the country’s oldest trade union has found the capacity to stay in the fight against the odds is to be applauded. How the deal develops from here will determine whether it endures and thrives.