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NWU Addresses

Feature Address At The NWU 3RD Triennial Congress of Delegates

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Member of the Secondary Schools Teachers Association (SSTA). He was a good theologian and biology teacher. He also had a passion for the Social Teachings of the Church.

At that time there were three unions that represented all teachers in Trinidad and Tobago. This apparently created ‘inter-union rivalry and fragmentation’ and hampered negotiations for the benefit of teachers. There was need for consolidation to be more united and effective. A Committee for the Unification of Teachers (COMFUT) was established. COMFUT became the forerunner of the umbrella body and single union for negotiating for teachers: Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association (TUTTA). Fragmentation and rivalry had given way to a vision of unity and the formation of a single teachers union.

The priest who was at the centre of the unification movement was Fr. Gerard Farfan C.S.Sp. He became the Second Vice-President of TUTTA and one of the great advocates for the cause of teachers. He negotiated for just wages, healthy
work environment, un-going teacher training, professional advancement and recognition and above all the right of association by teachers as full members of a single union. Fr. Gerard Farfan C.S.Sp., was a trailblazer and pioneer in the nineteen sixties and seventies in defending the rights of teachers in all schools. He was indefatigable in his efforts.

Once, there was a water shortage in the schools which had become the source of a serious health hazard for both staff and students. The matter was reported to the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education seeking Government’s immediate action or the prospect of the temporary closure of the schools. The PS said to Fr. Gerry and his negotiating team that the teachers were not allowed to take industrial action. With a little sneer on his face Fr. Gerry replied: ‘This is a health issue and the teachers are standing on water and as long as they are standing on water they are standing on solid ground!’ There was loud laughter. The ice was broken and the matter was resolved – not without a pinch of humour, deep respect and tough negotiation. He became known as a tough negotiator with a sharp wit. He wrote the Constitution for TUTTA in Trinidad and is still remembered today for his forthrightness, fearlessness and integrity. He ceased being a member of TUTTA in 1986 when he retired from teaching. Here we have an example of consolidation. Consolidate for efficiency, unity and a greater sense of purpose. Consolidation helps to overcome fragmentation and rivalry.

In Saint Lucia, Deacon Winston Taylor has worked with the trade union movement holding the post of secretary in in the Civil Service Association (CSA) for ten years as well as the post of 2nd Vice-President of the same union. While employed with M&C he served for twenty years as a Director of the Saint Lucia Employers Federation. He has therefore seen things from both sides: workers and employers. He also worked with Government as Deputy Labour Commissioner. His wealth of knowledge and experience should be utilized. He has contributed to the social question as an astute protagonist and defender of the rights of workers. He too is well briefed in the Social Teachings of the Church and can serve as a resource person and consultant to the trade union movement in Saint Lucia and to the NWU at this milestone in its journey of forty years of ‘nation building, constructive leadership and political education of the working people of Saint Lucia’ to use your terms of reference as an organization in your letter of invitation to me. Consolidation involves harnessing available resources to achieve common goals.

The first step on the road to consolidation is to do a needs-assessment to know the reality and to be open to change. ‘More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of’ (Tennyson). Pray for wisdom. I am sure that as an organization you have mechanisms in place for social analysis and strategic planning. However, are you ready to listen to the findings? Is the concern for consolidation becoming a part of the culture and pulse of your movement and organization? This is so necessary for accepting change and moving forward. When social issues take centre stage in our society, like the recent demand by the CSA for a substantial increase in wages, there is need for national discussion even at the level of schools and communities. People need to be free to ask questions: Is it just and timely? Does the employer have the means to pay? Does it take the common good into account? Our youth should be given the tools and the capacity for participating in the debate and for critiquing the situation. Education should equip us to become more involved and capable of constructive criticism and nation building. In this way there will be greater interest in national concerns. The role of a union should not be only to educate its own members but to educate the nation in developing a social conscience. Unemployment, wage negotiations and other social concerns are national concerns in so far as they affect the lives of individuals, families and the nation.

Often, when there is a social crisis, the question is asked: ‘Where is the voice of the Church?’ The expectation often is for the voice at the top to speak and to be heard. The Church is not afraid to address social issues. In fact, the Church’s
track record in this respect is remarkable. She never ceases to train and form her members in every imaginable vocation in life to be equipped and proactive in their grasp of and contribution to the social question. The answer comes not only
from above but from the whole body that makes up the Church. Fr. Gerry Farfan, Deacon Winston Taylor and many lay women and men are the voice of the church in the market place. At the same time the absence of a leadership voice may leave itself open to negative interpretations. I am here today because I believe that the Church has a contribution to make in the national discussion, in social concerns and matters to do with workers, which is at the core of the trade union portfolio. “The modern unions grew up from the struggle of the workers – workers in general but especially industrial workers – to protect their just rights vis-à-vis the entrepreneurs and owners of the means of production” (Loborem Exercens – On Human Work # 20). I also believe that to empower and be credible one has to be visible, transparent and willing to share the burden with others. By building partnerships and alliances we provide ourselves with a broader forum for participation and making our voice heard. Participating in this Congress has reminded me of this. I am, therefore, grateful to you for your invitation to deliver the Feature Address at the Open Session of the Third Triennial Congress of Delegates of the NWU.

In the Old Testament we have the example of the prophets of social justice such as Amos who spoke in defence of the poor condemning all exploitation and corruption by the rich and those who controlled capital at that time (cf Amos 8:4-
6). In the New Testament the gap between rich and poor is again emphasized e.g. in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-21) and in St. Matthew’s Gospel there is the example of the payment of just wages to the workers in the vineyard
(cf Mt. 20:1-16). From the perspective of the religious leader, it is clear that in preaching and teaching special attention needs to be given to the social upheavals taking place in our midst as well as globally. Indeed, greater care should be taken
in applying the social teachings of the Church in response to these situations. Constant education is required to create awareness of and help our people to understand the rights of workers and the unjust structures that may exist and which would need to be changed.

We need a greater catechesis of solidarity from our pulpits, classrooms and the social means of communications and other new technology at our disposal. Today we need to be better informed and proactive rather than to be on the defensive. This is an area where the Church needs to consolidate for greater pastoral effectiveness. This consolidation may imply keeping the channels of communication more effectively open to the trade unions and other socially involved organizations in the society. Often we don’t act because we are unaware or we are unprepared. No single person or organization will have all the answers but a greater solidarity can change the way we see, think and act. In fact, worker solidarity changed the world in the latter part of the twentieth century. Pope Leo XIII in the latter part of the nineteenth century produced a landmark Encyclical – Rerum Novarum – on the New Things (May 15, 1891). In it he addressed the challenges of the industrial revolution. His analysis of the right to work and the right to private property; the rights and duties of workers and the rights and responsibilities of employers; the role of labour and capital and the right of association laid the foundation for over one hundred years of social teaching by the Church that every trade union leader should make an effort to be familiar with. The Holy Spirit is a great teacher and can inspire the trade union leader in his or her endeavours.

There are two key principles in Catholic Social Teaching that I would like to mention now: human dignity and the common good. Human dignity: “At the very foundation of the Church’s social tradition stands the conviction that each person, regardless of age, condition, or ability, is an image of God and so endowed with an irreducible dignity, or value. Each person is an end in him or herself, never merely an instrument valued only for its utility – a who, not a what; a someone,
not a something. This dignity is possessed simply by virtue of being human. It is never an achievement, nor a gift from any human authority; nor can it be lost, forfeited, or justly taken away. All human beings regardless of individual properties and circumstances therefore enjoy this God-given dignity” (Vocation of the Business Leader – A Reflection from the Pontifical Council For Justice and Peace 2011).

The common good: The Second Vatican Council defined the common good as ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily’ (Gaudium et Spes # 26). The common good embraces and supports all the goods needed to allow each human being and all human beings to develop, individually and communally (cf. Vocation of the Business Leader # 34).

The Social Teachings of the Church are often referred to as the Church’s best kept secret! Yes, the Church speaks, leads and offers solutions to matters of major concern that impact on people’s lives. The Church also has a prophetic and moral voice which must be heard in the market place and in the Areopagi of business relations, economics, trade, employment and capital. The specific role of unions is to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole of society. To authentically represent the worker unions must understand their role clearly and not become an instrument used for other purposes.

The role of unions is not to ‘play politics.’ When trade unions allow themselves to be embraced too closely by government their voice and influence are weakened. Blessed John Paul II in his Encyclical On Human Work (Laborem Exercens # 20)
wrote: ‘Unions do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them.’ The person, the worker always comes before capital or the means of production. The human being must always be the subject never the object. Work has priority over capital. This is grounded in human dignity. ‘It is always to be hoped that, thanks to the work of their unions, workers will not only have more, but above all be more: in other words, that they will realize their humanity more fully in every respect’ (LE # 20). With rights come responsibilities.

CONCLUSION

I am happy to see that the NWU has taken a strong position regarding contract labour in the Public Service. This policy is not healthy and puts workers at a disadvantage. I was told by an informed source of a worker in Trinidad who has been employed by Government for twenty five years and to date has not been made permanent. Why should this happen? I would like to see more job opportunities created for the differently abled. I would also like to see more serious thinking on the rights of the family and the provision of greater opportunities for mothers who want to stay home and bring up their children to be able to do so without the pressure of having to leave home for work each day which is compounded by the challenge of bringing up a family.

I would like to see a greater effort being made to address the high level of unemployment and especially the predicament of unemployed youth. The issue of poverty and social exclusion needs to be addressed. Good work ethics need to be valued and fostered. There is a critical need for training people in areas of need and not in make shift work! Obviously the trade union has a role to play in all these situations and new social realities.

CONSOLIDATE FOR SURVIVAL must include unity of membership, continued recruitment and should also mean openness to other entities and the need to identify common goals. This is the age of solidarity and collaboration. Solidarity is strength. Unity is strength. A social activist said to me: ‘In the present economic climate, consolidate or die!’ She also said to me: ‘to survive, leaders need to put their egos to bed!’ Let me be bold and say to you: ‘consolidate and be dynamic’; ‘consolidate and live’. You have a mission. Don’t lose your vision and vitality!

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