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NWU Addresses

Basdeo Panday - delivered to the St Lucia National Workers Union

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First let me thank you for your kind and generous invitation to be not only your guest of honour but also to deliver the feature address at this your 42nd Annual Conference of Delegates.
The theme of your Conference is CONSOLIDATE FOR SURVIVAL. This begs the question: How do we survive in these modern conditions? Uppermost in the minds of most labour movements in the Caribbean is the question: Where do we go from here?

It is said that in order to know where to go you must first know where you are, but in order to know where you are you must know where you came from. The same thing applies to trade unions. Where did the trade union movement in the Caribbean come from: where is it now, and where ought we to go?
To be precise, let us start with the definition of a trade union. A trade union, or workers union, is an organization of workers who have come together to achieve common goals such as protecting the integrity of its trade, improving safety standards, achieving higher pay and benefits such as health care and retirement, and better working conditions. As you all know the precursor of the trade unions was the Guild system which lasted for years, but was inadequate to deal with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the18th and 19th centuries.
St Lucia, a country with a population of 182,273 (2013) living on an island of 616 square kilometers (or 238 square miles). Having regard to what I have just heard from a previous speaker about the prolific nature of the St Lucian people I am sure that number must have increase by a few thousands since 2013. St Lucia with more than 10 trade unions makes it a fairly well unionized society.

I have noted with great interest the Founding Principles of the National Workers Union which reads as follows:
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – the capitalist class and the working class. The interests of the capitalist class and of the workers are in irreconcilable conflict and between these two classes struggle must go on until the workers of the world, organised as a class, take possession of the means of production and build a society democratically run by workers for workers.”
It continues:
“The capitalist class takes its wealth and power from the unpaid labour of the working-class. For their part, workers have no choice but to combine and fight for their political, economic and social interests and, in doing so, they form organisations of struggle. What capitalism produces, in the form of an organised working class, are the seeds of its own destruction. Its fall and the victory of the working class are equally inevitable.”
Now, this is clearly a Marxist/socialist approach to the position of the trade union. In my early trade union days I was totally committed to this concept. So much so that I actually coined a phrase to describe the employer class as the ‘parasitic oligarchy’, an act for which paid dearly in my political career. But a lot of water has flowed beneath the bridge since Karl Marx who died in 1883 at the age of 65.
There can be little doubt that the conflict between the employer class and the working class is an irreconcilable one. The employers’ objective being profits, he wants as much labour as possible for as little pay as possible; the worker, on the other hand, measuring his time between leisure and labour, wants as much pay as possible for as little work as possible. The apologists for the employer class have sought resolution of this conflict in advocating a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. But no one has been able to define what is a fair day’s work, or a fair day’s pay to the satisfaction of both sides. And so the irreconcilable conflict remains unresolved. Whether the resolution of this irreconcilable conflict lies in the direction of workers taking (and I quote from your Founding Principles) “possession of the means of production” seems a little far-fetched today given the present power of the multi-national corporations and their control of the mass communications media as an instrument of propaganda. If I may use a Marxian term, the objective conditions have changed since days of that great German philosopher. However, the concept of building “a society democratically run by workers for workers’ has greater potential. The question is HOW? Certainly, the old methods will not work. The objective conditions having changed so must the strategy and tactics.
In the 19th and the early 20th centuries working conditions were very different from what they are today, a little better perhaps, mostly because of the struggles of the unions. The rapid pace of changing technology and work processes brought about by the Industrial revolution in which not only men, but women and often children were forced to work long hours with little pay in hot houses and factories filled with germs and usually infested with rats, causing many health problems.
It was in those conditions that Marx and the other socialists wrote. Under such conditions workers’ struggles were inevitable and they were not afraid to engage in any and all kinds of struggles because they had nothing to lose but their chains. The Luddites went so far as to advocate the destruction of the machines as a means of ending the workers’ misery. The kind of struggles in which they were engaged are not as relevant today as it was then. Modern trade union struggles have degenerated to marches and demonstrations, limited strikes, go-slows, sick-outs and other milder forms of industrial action. No longer do we have the militant groups of workers such as those led by Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler, Adrian Cola Rienzi and George Weeks in Trinidad; Norman Manley of Jamaica, Cheddi Jaggan of Guyana, Grantley Adams of Barbados, just to name a few.
Why are Caribbean trade unions less militant than they were in the past? There are several reasons. In the recent past we have noticed the introduction of anti- worker legislation and the militarisation of the State’s coercive machinery under the excuse of fighting crime. But such oppressive force can and has been used to quell the workers’ potential for even these mild forms of struggles in some countries in the Caribbean. In Trinidad and Tobago, the Government, which was supported by the workers’ unions and other labour organisations, have introduced laws to protect the employers even from these minor nuisance forms of struggle. Severely restricting the right of workers to take strike and other forms of industrial action the Industrial Stabilisation Act, 1965, of Trinidad and Tobago set up a Court to deal with labour disputes. It is no surprise that the militant trade union leaders are now being replaced by lawyers, either in form or in substance.
It is just as well, because the rank and file, too, has also lost its capacity for the kind of struggles of former times? Why is this so? I can only answer that question from my own experience as a trade union leader of the sugar workers in Trinidad and Tobago. In any case I was one told that ‘when in Rome do not criticise the Romans.’
When I became leader of the All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factories Workers Trade Union in 1973 the wages of an unskilled labourer in the sugar industry was 63 cents an hour or $5.04 per day, that is to say, about one British pound at the time. The field workers were employed for 5 or 6 months of the year, living on credit and odd jobs for the rest of the year. The average annual earnings were around $600.00. Many of the workers were still living in mud huts covered with carat leaves, in mud traces, with no electricity or pipe borne water. They were living in grinding poverty. I decided that I my first task was to carry out a struggle for guaranteed work, that is to say, I wanted the employers to provide work for more than 6 months of the year. I remember many of my trade union colleagues jokingly laughed at me saying: We fighting for more pay, Panday fighting for more work. Since the employer refused our demands we went on strike. But since the workers were so poor they could not strike for long and sustained periods. So we waited until the reaping season began and invented the strategy of striking for one week and working for one week. We called it “one week on and one week off.” We told the workers “Let the one week pay last for two weeks; eat half belly”. After a long and bitter strike the Company caved in and the field workers were employed until September.
But they were still the lowest paid workers in the country; they were at the bottom of the wage ladder. Even the workers on the Government make-work programmes, such as the URP, who worked for only a few hours per day, got more wages than the sugar workers. So in 1975 when the time came for us to negotiate a new industrial agreement we demanded a 100% wage increase, the rationale being the demand for equality. By that time the industry had been nationalised by the Government and so we expected a more favourable response from our new employers. But the Government that had been politically supported by the trade unions to get into power rejected our proposal. We did the only thing we knew. We went on strike again, and again it was a long and bitter one, but the workers, though enduring much suffering decided to go all the way even though we were brutalised by the police, beaten, tear-gassed, arrested and jailed. They had nothing to lose but their chains. We eventually succeeded; the Government caved in and had the Company had to pay the increase retroactively which meant that the workers would receive a back-pay. When they got it, the back pay, that is, all hell broke loose.
Having been deprived all their lives of a decent living, and in their eagerness to live like other people they bought beds, chairs and tables, cups, spoons, plates and even radio and television sets...most of it on hire-purchase. And that was the end of militant struggle. What the employers could not do, hire-purchase did.
When that three-year Industrial agreement came to an end and the time came for negotiation of a new agreement we asked for a mere 15% increase and the government rejected our proposal. I decided to resort to my old and faithful strategy of Strike. But try as I may I could not get the workers to go on strike. They would not even demonstrate. This strong, disciplined army of militant workers that I had built up over the years would not budge. I soon discovered that the reason for this sudden loss of militancy was the phenomenon known as “Hire Purchase.” Having bought their ‘luxuries’ on hire purchase they were now afraid that a strike would prevent them from paying the instalments and the merchants would re-possess the goods. Now they had more to lose than their chains. They stood to lose their chairs, and tables and beds. Time does not permit me to tell you what I had to do to get that 15% increase.
I relate this experience to emphasise the fact that things have changed; times have changed, and the old methods of struggle to improve the lives of the ‘working class’ are no longer as relevant today as they used to be. My argument is that if we are to improve the lives of the working people the labour movement must find new ways and means to do so. I learnt that lesson the hard way.
When on the 18th March, 1975, the workers of almost all the trade unions in the country united on a peaceful march for Peace, Bread and Justice the Government used the coercive power and machinery of the State to crush that march with unprecedented violence. Workers were tear-gassed and beaten, arrested and jailed. I realised then that all the gains of the working class can by wiped out by single stroke of the political pen. I came then to the conclusion that it was important for the working class to have political power if they were going to continue to improve the lives of the workers. Your Union recognises this fact. I again borrow a passage from your Union’s Mission Statement which says:
“The ownership of capital represents not only economic wealth but economic and therefore political power. The working-class and its organizations cannot, therefore, escape from politics. Not the shallow politics of parties financed by and representing the interests of the capitalist class, but the politics of power and the class interests of workers.”
Thought the emphasis was mine, I could not have put it better myself. But the real question is: How is this “politics of power and the class interests of workers” to be achieved? We know that several governments in the Caribbean have, at one time or another, been led by labour leaders and Labour Parties but we have never been able to effect the kind of power-transfer that is envisaged in your Statement. Again, I resort to my own experience in attempt to unravel this conundrum.
When I became Prime Minister in 1995 that was the first time that the Government of Trinidad and Tobago had been led by a trade union leader. We had promised in our Manifesto to deal with, amongst other things, the spiraling crime situation. But to deal with crime we had to deal with unemployment. To deal with unemployment we had deal with education and training. All of this required huge capital investments. We had to build houses, schools, factories and engage in projects that would create jobs. With the price of oil floating between $8 and $15 a barrel at the time we in the Government did not have the resources to do so and, therefore, we had to turn to the private sector. I now had to be on good terms with the very persons I had referred to, in my trade union days, as “the parasitic oligarchy,” both local and foreign, not only pleading with them to invest their capital in job creating projects, but we were forced to grant all kinds of concessions to encourage them so to do.
It slowly but surely dawned on me that when I was a trade union leader my responsibility and obligation were to the members of my union. Now that I was Prime Minister my obligation and responsibility were to the entire country that included all classes. But even more frustrating was the cold naked fact that I was Prime Minister in a country with systems and institutions already created by the dominant class to suit their particular interests. In other words I was caught up in the system from which there was no escape. But it seems I was not alone.
I notice that you too have wrestled with this problem. I again quote from the profile of your own Union:
Under the rubric “Working-class Politics” you have said:
“Whilst the day to day struggle of workers will generate a trade union consciousness and the need for solidarity in the face of the employer, it is necessary to develop this so that there is an understanding of the class nature of society and the need for workers to take power through their own party. Our Union is therefore committed to the formation of an independent party of the working class.”
I presume the purpose of forming an independent political Party is to take political power and control the State apparatus.
I do not know enough of the politics for St Lucia to determine how far you have got with that ambition, so let me use Trinidad and Tobago as my point of reference. Over the years we, in Trinidad and Tobago, have done just that. We have supported candidates and political parties who claimed that they would represent the workers and working class interests; we have even formed working class parties and have even got some representatives of the workers into Parliament and even Government. But once in power those who promised the workers that they would represent them are forced to toe the Party line to the detriment of the workers. Even when there were labour governments in power such Governments, for their own survival, were constrained by the political system to be under the influence of the capitalist class. And so to this day real political power continues to elude the working class. Why?
I respectfully submit that the reason is that our struggles are taking place in a political system that was designed to keeps the employer class (formerly referred to as “the bourgeoisie”) in power and the working class (formerly referred to as “the proletariat”) at bay and out of real political power. In other words, we continue our struggle for workers’ political power within the present Westminster Model of first-past-the post-single member-constituency. It is a political system designed by the ruling elite to keep the employer class in power forever. It is clear that this system is not conducive to empowering the working class in the sense that we have spoken. We must start looking outside the box.
Under the present system of first-past the post the working class can only form the Government if it gets the majority of votes in the majority of constituencies. Very often to achieve that feat they must rely on the finances of the employer- class to finance their campaigns, while their financiers are also financing the other side in the event that they lose. Oft times the working class Party is financed by the same financiers who support the other side. If the working class Party forms the Government the employer class is in control; if other side wins the employers are still in control. It’s a win-win situation for the employers and a no-win situation for the workers.
The only way out of this seemingly intractable problem is to change the rules of the political game; to change the battleground, to level the playing field. And that means changing the out-dated and irrelevant Westminster political system. This can only be done peacefully by constitutional reform with the support of a special majority in the Parliament. What if there is no such consensus in the Parliament even though the majority of people want it? History is replete with examples of when the peaceful and democratic channels to change are blocked by the powers that be the people resort to violent protest and violent revolution to effect the change they want. Be that as it may, I still say Constitutional Reform is the answer. I would prefer peaceful change. I therefore advise Caribbean Governments to listen to the cries of the people.
But you may ask: What kind of constitutional reform am I talking about? Reform to what? If we are to change the present Constitution what do we put in its place? Let me say at the outset that there is no single constitution that is suitable to all peoples, everywhere, for all times. The needs of the people differ from place to place and from time to time. A Constitution must be relevant to the needs of the people for the advancement to a better society in which all shall live in peace. It may be the same for peoples with the same needs and aspirations, but will differ as the needs and aspirations of particular peoples differ. I can therefore only speak for Trinidad and Tobago. You may find a similarity with other Caribbean nations.
For Trinidad and Tobago, a country with its intense diversity, I have made the following suggestions for constitutional reform. I suggest first of all, that have a unicameral Parliament of one Chamber to be known as the House of Representatives. There is no need for a Senate or what they call the Upper Chamber. The Senators are not elected but nominated by the Government, the Opposition and the President, who himself is not elected but a creature of the Government. We do not need an Upper House. We copied that irrelevance from the British. The House of Representatives of which I speak will be elected on the basis of proportional representation. Under such a system the workers as a distinctive group will not have to depend on others to represent them but will be able to put their own people in the Parliament to represent their interests. So will the farmers, the small and medium size businesses, and any other interest groups in the society, with each group getting a percentage of the seats in the Parliament in accordance with the percentage of votes of the entire electorate that they get. For example, if the workers organisation gets 20% of the votes of the total electorate they get 20% of the seats in the Parliament. They will then have members in Parliament to look after their own interests instead of depending on others so to do for them. Under such a system people will vote on the basis of their interests and not on the basis of racial or ethnic considerations. We shall then have a Parliament representing the widest cross-section of the population. What can be more democratic than that? Power will then be in the hands of the people acting through their representatives in Parliament.
The main function of the Parliament will be to enact laws on matters of national importance and interest. The Parliament must also approve the appointments to several sensitive posts in the country. They will be able to constantly supervise the activities of the Executive between elections by setting up Investigating Committees similar to those of the American Senate. That is why no member of the Executive should also be a Member of Parliament. There must be a complete separation of powers between the Executive and the Legislature. Parliamentarians must work full-time and not part time as some of them do today. Similarly, Parliamentarians cannot also be Ministers nor will they be responsible for any electoral constituency. That will be the function of a reformed system of Local Government.
How will the Executive be formed? The Executive will consist of the Head State who will also be Head of Government, called him or her by whatever name you please: President or Prime Minister, Chief Minister. Let us call him/her Prime Minister since it seems to be term we prefer to President. The Prime Minister will be elected on the basis of one man one vote by the entire electorate. The P.M. then appoints his/her Ministers, from amongst persons who, in his/her opinion are best suited to run the country for the next five years. The P.M. and his/her Ministers now constitute the Cabinet or Executive of the country.
The HoG (Head of Government) must then formulate a Plan of Action indicating what his/her Government intends to do for the next five years. That Plan together with a Budget proposal must then be presented to Parliament for funding of these proposals. Herein lies the control of the people over the Government in power. It is said that he who controls the purse controls the purse controls the power. If you don’t believe me just ask the wives. With the control over finance the people, through their representatives, decides what’s to be done, where and how. Only then will labour truly hold the reins.
Consolidate, therefore, and seek ye first the political kingdom and all else shall be added unto you!

Thank you and May God Bless You All!

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