Labour Movement: Whither Bound Now? 

Despite tough labour laws passed by the previous government as part of its “economic reform” program and notwithstanding significant losses of purchasing power from undercompensated inflation in the more recent period, it has proved difficult for trade unions to mobilise the solidarity of masses in the recent past. It is quite likely that their rallying call for the coming Mayday will face an identical fate. It is well known that successful vast popular movements of protest against oppression have historically spearheaded great social changes. These changes became the cornerstones of our development from crude systems of repression which tended to keep the people down. People are therefore rightly asking themselves whether the trade union movement as we have known it for having wrought major improvements in our standard of living and in our future prospects has petered out as a factor of social development.

On the one hand, the failure of unions to mobilise protest has sent signals contrary to what the unions would have hoped for. It is, as it were, they were being qualified as a spent force. By contrast, the much larger crowds garnered by political parties at their Mayday rallies appear to be putting the political parties, not the unions, as the forum where popular vindications would be sorted out. When the great labour movements were taken up in the past, the unions shared a common agenda with the political parties having mass support. The two of them found that their objectives were coinciding. This is no longer the case the more so as it is the Labour Party, the springboard of the erstwhile labour protest movements, which is holding the reins of political power. The party qualifies itself as the fidei defensor (Defender of the Faith) of the working class. By enfolding workers’ struggle against oppression within itself, it has diluted the sharpness with which trade union action could have been conducted, leaving little scope for any other to vindicate this right.

This situation shows that the trade unions, apart from failing to make their point conjointly with each other, ceased reinventing their plan of action at some point in time. A lot of trade union credibility was lost in the decade of the 1970s and more fully so in the early 1980s when political power emerging out of actions by MMM-affiliated trade unions alongside the MMM party, was diverted to serve the cause of the economic liberalism of the very private sector that this joint movement had portrayed so far as being the source of workers’ frustrations. Since then, trade unions have been seen as a motley collection of fissiparous tendencies content to tackle microscopic issues and unable to fix their mind on grand social objectives like those that had successfully rallied the masses in the past. The chasm created by the “missing link” among them has proceeded apace and there has been no hesitation on the part of unions in recent years to display publicly their divided loyalties.

What has been happening at the level of individual trade unions mirrors perhaps a parallel conflict of private interests at the level of workers. Since the benchmark of “oppression” today is not the same in different enterprises engaged in more diversified fields of economic activity than it was the case in the days of monolithic sugar, unions have been unable to fit into a unified reaction curve workers’ negative outlooks in the diverse workplaces and work environments. At the very least, unions have not been able to stitch the common string of protest identifying the major source of disruption of worker strength. This absence of commonality as regards the workplace specifically has plagued the trade union movement to the point of making it insignificant as a major social force. Its effort at unifying people by denouncing the inherent racial differentiation in matters of election has not up to now cut deep conviction as a common social-pull factor. Worker mentality has also changed to embrace more keenly personal ambitions and individualistic opportunism to the detriment of the collective interest, undermining the very power of unions to stem the tide before it is too late. The absence of an effective safety valve against pent-up passions can be very damaging to social stability unless unions and other social forces play their role effectively.

Yet, the dangers from concentration of political power are being illustrated every day, notably in the Middle East, in the absence of significant countervailing social forces. Instead of allowing the situation to drift to extremes where a few plenipotentiaries end up incarnating all power, society would have developed more smoothly if the balancing act between necessarily contrarian forces within it were undertaken progressively and consensually. Trade unions – alongside other social forces – are called upon to keep those excesses from developing which, in places like Greece, are taking a heavy toll all at once on workers battered by all sorts of emerging economic distortions and, in places like the Middle East, which send the army and the security forces to kill citizens who dare protest against political abuses and economic oppression by the rulers.

We are not in those situations but trade unions have to understand that their current state of disarray and failing to have an effective voice in the chapter can lead to social instability. It is going to be difficult for them to become a credible and unified counterforce once again until they find the formula to rally workers in one common élan, but do trade unions have a choice than to bring their fold together once again? An institution of the country is badly in need of essential repairs. 


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