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NWU Addresses

Sir Julian Robert Hunte to the 2014 NWU Annual Conference NWU

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This National Workers Union is, by any measure, a progressive, dynamic and vibrant twenty-first century organization, fully committed to the service of its members. The strength of any organization, however, is dependent on the quality of its leadership. Let me, therefore, recognize the able and proven leadership of President General Tyrone Maynard. President Maynard, I have a special “Thank you” for you.

I often say, in jest, that I am grateful to you for allowing me to hold the record as one of the longest Immediate Past Presidents of any organization!

Times have significantly changed for labour and workers since the era of the foundation of the National Workers Union, and especially since the birth of the Trade Union Movement almost one hundred and fifty years ago. Especially when change may not be for the better, those affected must stand firm. Just how firm, generally speaking, is the labour movement and workers standing in St Lucia?

Let us reflect on the most important date in the Labour calendar worldwide, 1st May. This day is commemorated as May Day or Labour Day. It is a day set aside to celebrate what the global trade union movement has accomplished. As you know, the day is a holiday here in St Lucia, as it is in many countries around the world. How did we commemorate May Day 2014 in St Lucia? I found the Voice of St. Lucia’s May Day Supplement, Weekend Edition of 26 April 2014, very instructional, and exceptionally sobering.

Speaking to what once obtained; the Voice commented on how the St Lucian Labour Movement and Workers celebrated Labour Day in the past, stating, and I quote: “Wednesday May 1st is Labour Day, a day when workers in the country at one time celebrated in grand style their successes and achievements. The Saint Lucian working class celebrated that day with much fervour in the late seventies and first half of the eighties, spearheaded by the then powerful Seamen, Waterfront and General Workers Trade Union, and later by the grouping of trade unions called the Industrial Solidarity Pact.” Speaking to what occurred in the Labour Movement thereafter and particularly the falling away of the importance that Labour and Workers gave to Labour Day, the Voice commented, and I quote: “The Industrial Solidarity Pact dissolved in the late eighties, and with it went the type of celebrations that used to mark Labour Day. Over the years and in recent times, May Day or Labour Day used to spark a fire in workers and trade unions alike. Now it seems to be just another holiday on our calendar of holidays. Gone for good it seems are the church services, the marching in the streets, the rallies. The coming together of workers to read solidarity

messages, talk about conditions at their workplace and mingle with each other.” Fast-forwarding to today, the Voice submitted the following points of view regarding what it considered to be the cause for a limited understanding on why May 1st is Labour Day in St Lucia, and I quote: “Sadly today not many workers and their leaders could explain why May 1st is celebrated as Labour Day. Most of today’s trade unions and their leaders seem more interested in grand standing, posturing to the media, intent more on obtaining positions in the trade union movement than educating workers about the events that led to May 1st being observed as Labour Day internationally.” I cannot recall a time in my life and career, whether in labour, business, politics, diplomacy or civil society, that I have so extensively quoted any newspaper. I do so now because there are elements in the viewpoints expressed in the Voice with which I, and certainly everyone in the room, can all identify.
Decades ago, I was actively involved in organizing May Day celebrations in St Lucia. For me, therefore, it was saddening what took place in St Lucia on May 1st 2014, or might I say, what did not take place. To be sure, someone having no knowledge of May Day and its celebration as Labour Day could be forgiven for thinking that there was no such thing as Labour Day in St Lucia.

That person could also be forgiven for thinking that the sole purpose of the May-Day holiday was to stage the Town of Soufriere’s first ever participation in the St. Lucia Jazz Festival! Likewise, the person could be forgiven for thinking that the appearance of the group Kassav at the Jazz Festival was the only matter of importance in St. Lucia on that day.

What was truly ironic, though, was that the largest Public Sector Trade Union and one of the largest Trade Unions in the country chose 30 April, the day before May Day and Labour Day, to hold novel style elections to its Executive. At a time when they ought to have been preparing to commemorate the sacrifices that led to the establishment of Labour Day, a worker’s holiday, Officials and Members of that Union were preoccupied with who would win positions in its Executive.

Let me here revert to another commentary in the “Voice of St. Lucia’s” Supplement that I consider especially noteworthy, and which states that: “Ironically the factors that led to May 1st being observed as Labour Day back in the 19th century are very relevant today given the problems confronting the trade union movement

The “Voice” is right. These are unprecedented and challenging times in the history of the Labour Movement. These are difficult times for Labour and Workers. These are times that call for Trade Union Movements to be innovative and creative in consolidating gains that have been made. St Lucian Trade Unions must do their part to ensure that Labour is again placed, and kept, on firm footing.

Local Trade Unions have an obligation to give the importance due to the Observance of May Day. No doubt the workers would have urged them to do so, but this requires inspiration and education from Leaders that give workers a keen understanding of the meaning of the May Day.

Local Trade Unions also have an obligation, on the occasion of Labour Day, to acknowledge the contribution of our workers. They should do this especially for our young people, our new generation, so that they may fully understand the contribution that the working class and their organizations have made to the development and social stability of our country. Importantly, it should be made clear to them that they too, must contribute, and must follow in the footsteps of those that went before.

Labour must take up the challenge, and it must take it up now, because this is a time when the rights of workers and the gains achieved by the labour movement worldwide are under fire. These challenges are fuelled by significant changes in the international economic system, and in the nature of trade, production, finance and technology that power that system.

In developed countries, the rich are becoming richer in the face of these changes, primarily because they can skilfully move business and finances to where labour and resources are cheapest, and profits are highest. The fallout for the middle and working classes is a loss of jobs, and a resulting increase in poverty. For labour, the most serious consequence has been a rapid decline in the membership of trade unions, even in countries such as the 5 United States and Germany. This consequence has been even more calamitous for workers in developing countries.

Changes impacting the labour movement go hand in hand with the global financial crisis which began in 2008. We are all only too well aware that this financial crisis is manifesting itself in the severest economic recession the world has experienced in some sixty years. The crisis is causing governments to respond with policies that are being described as antilabour.

The International Labour Organisation, ILO, took up this matter in the introductory Section of its 2011 handbook, entitled ‘Trade Unions and the Global Crisis”. The Handbook laid out graphically the types of attacks on workers’ rights that are occurring not only in developing countries, but also in developed countries such as the United States. I quote: “The political response has produced regimes of austerity characterized by such measures as cuts in public spending on social welfare and health care, reductions in pensions, freezing of the minimum wage, capping or holding back wage increases covered by bargaining agreements in the public sector and laying off workers in the public sector.”…end of quote. Examples of the ILO’s observations are evident in our Caribbean, including here in St Lucia. In Barbados, the Government has retrenched 3,000 public sector workers. Over the last month, we in St Lucia have been witnesses to the raging debate about the Government’s attempt to respond to the economic crisis by seeking to cut $75 million in public sector expenditure, through a five per cent reduction in the salaries of public sector employees.

I urge us all to be mindful, however, that our Governments are not deliberately targeting workers. They are responding to international institutions that are insensitive to the plight of workers when they set their prescriptions for our countries as Small Island Developing States with their one size fits all policies, and we have no choice but to respond. We all know how harsh the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in particular, can be. This is why it is important for the current discussions between the St. Lucia Government and Public Sector Unions over the proposals for a five per cent salaries and wages cut or the alternative of public service retrenchment must succeed. The failure to reach a consensus on how to reduce the deficit in government’s finances will undoubtedly place St. Lucia in the clutches of the IMF; and the IMF will impose even more austere measures to the detriment of all; so even if the initial reaction by Public Sector Unions to Government’s proposals has been negative, the dialogue has to continue for a successful resolution of the matter.

I urge you to think on these things. It would no doubt also help you to understand why the St Lucia Labour Party, the political party for which I have the honour to serve as Chairman, which has its genesis in the labour movement, and which now forms the Government of St Lucia, has not commemorated Labour Day over the past several years. International organizations that demand austerity of our Government would hardly countenance the dedication of resources to celebrations, including Labour Day. Let me hasten to state emphatically that this, however, does not diminish the Labour Party’s support for labour and workers.

The survival of labour rights is clearly at stake in the current global economic environment. Labour itself is contributing to this unquestionable dilemma when it fails to celebrate its successes, and educate and inspire the younger generation. In St Lucia, these failures are symptomatic of a blatant lack of unity, which has brought about a crisis in the national labour movement. This was clearly evident in the non-observance of Labour Day. This situation cannot, and must not, stand.

This National Workers Union is the most dynamic organisation in the local labour movement. It has declared in this Conference Theme, “CONSOLIDATION FOR SURVIVAL”, that it is ready to take action to reverse the fragmentation in the labour
movement in St Lucia. I therefore regard this Theme as an invitation from the National Workers Union to all others to join forces, so as to strengthen the labour movement in our country, and to give it a common voice.

Consolidation will not work if trade unions other than the National Workers Union are weakened and crumbling, unable to withstand the attacks on the rights of their members. Consolidation will not work if each union is concerned only with its particular sector of St Lucia. They will soon see their little patch disappear, as the country falls into the hands of international organizations that set harsh prescriptions that Government must follow. Consolidation will succeed if all trade unions in St Lucia believe in it, and accept the concept of a single movement. Consolidation will succeed if it becomes a single rallying cry for all the labour unions in St Lucia. Consolidation will succeed if trade unions become a common and collective force that networks with other civil society groups. This common and collective force would be one that dialogues with public and private sector authorities to establish social compacts and national strategies that respond effectively to challenges arising from the current global economic system.

It is the National Workers Union that recognized the need for consolidation. It has proposed consolidation for survival. Therefore, it is the National Workers Union that must take responsibility to lead in the creation of a new national coalition of Trade Unions. A conference such as this must be the place that new ideas, insights and proposals are put on the table, to move labour forward. This is my proposal on consolidation. I propose that the National Workers Union initiate a dialogue among the country’s trade unions. The primary objective of this dialogue should be to determine how, as a single labour movement, the trade unions can respond to today’s economic challenges, particularly the global recession, and the effects of these challenges on the workers of St Lucia. The Trade Union Movement, and through it, the working people, must position themselves to maximize efforts to strengthen labour.

This involves ensuring that there is a sound understanding of the economic and social environment of St Lucia. It also involves ensuring that their proposals can stand up to those of employers. Traditionally, employers have had the means of analysis and advice from a diversity of sources, at home and abroad, to support their positions and negotiations. Today the diversity of the movement gives labour equal opportunity. The movement includes all classes and occupational levels. It has access to the most up-to-date information about our country, the international economy, and our country’s standing in it. Taken as a whole, the Unions collectively have unprecedented expert competence.

So I say to you, “Let the Dialogue Begin”. I am not suggesting for one moment that the task will be an easy one. I am saying to you that it is a task that must be done. We have a ready starting point for our dialogue. It is a universal resolve that no longer must another May Day or Labour Day pass unobserved by the trade union movement in St Lucia.

No longer must the celebration of workers’ rights and achievements take second place to any event or happening in St Lucia on Labour Day. No longer should the Voice or any other newspaper have just cause to indict trade unions for failing to meaningfully commemorate Labour Day. Labour must, and I am sure will, stand up, and be counted. To inspire us to stand up for our ideals as labour, I commend to you the words from the Preface of the book, “Trade Unions and the Global Crisis”, written by Michael Sommer, President of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and I quote, “There can be no doubt that the current globalization regime, driven by uncontrolled global capital markets and free trade, has been instrumental in putting pressure on workers throughout the world and is responsible for the greatest economic crisis for a century. Trade unions’ responses to this situation have to stretch from the local to the global…… In this process, trade unions will themselves have to change in order to be the successful agents of change towards a new social and economic development paradigm. These are challenging tasks, but the message is also clear: change is possible, and it is done by ordinary
people, when they come together in unity.”… End of quote.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you once again for this opportunity to address you.

I thank you…

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