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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Keeping Company


Dr. Lester CN Simon

Sometimes we have to look back to see ahead. We should go through this exercise now as we try to chart a course out of these perilous economic times. I have heard it said by intelligent people that in times like these we need a saviour. Whenever we say this, and if we really mean it, we must ask ourselves if the saviour has not already given us the answer through the written words of one of our sterling, native sons.

We have had the good fortune of experiencing two polar examples of relationships between companies and workers, to know right from wrong. We have had companies with varying degrees of unionized workers from militant to token unionization. We have also had companies, including a spectacular one, which not only had no unionized workers, they covertly or overtly abhorred unionization.

Examination of both extremes should tell us that militant unionization and no unionization are ultimately counterproductive. When we hear union officials cry out for workers and extol the fundamental rights of workers, we are reminded of the origin and history of trade unionism in this country. We should balance this with the genuine cries of some employers. We regard the Labour Code almost as a sacred document, even though it has some imbalances and is in need of revision and modernization.

To understand the opportunity rather than the danger we are facing in these perilous, economic times, we must re-read one paragraph of The Struggle and the Conquest by Sir Novelle Richards. Parts of it read, “The aim of the Trade Union Movement was that workers in the sugar industry should be accepted as partners, whereby they could share in the wealth created by the industry, rather than being tools employed to do a job.”

This text, which should be in all workplaces, goes on to say that the planters resisted this partnership approach. It notes that increases in wages would mean less profit for the company, unless there was improved production efficiency. The trade union movement at that time challenged the producers to this paradigm shift of improved production efficiency to balance the warranted increases in wages. The seminal paragraph of the text ends by noting that men like Moody-Stuart and others were willing to accept the challenge but “others did not relish the additional exertion and planning necessitated by this challenge.”

So, it is written, that the producers, the owners, were too lazy to exert themselves, to work, to plan, in order to make their own business more efficient. This is sterling stuff by Sir Novelle Richards. However, if the dead could cry, he would be bawling long eye water to discover that after all the struggles and conquests, we have arrived at a stalemate. Not only are some producers and owners still too lazy to exert themselves to improve efficiency, when some of them honour the raison d’etre of the trade union movement, there are workers who do not want to join the partnership-efficiency struggle.

The fault does not lie just with some owners and some workers, it is also seated in the lap of some trade union officials. Hopefully they express disapproval of some actions of their workers in private when the workers are blatantly wrong. But some things must be acknowledged in public: like the wanton abuse of the sick leave provisions in the Labour Code. And since we are on the topic of sick leave and acknowledgement in public, let me shout out that a few doctors and some workers are unconscionably and wantonly bartering sick leave. There is a vulgar joke about a postman who went to deliver a letter to a doctor and was offered a sick leave certificate, without asking for one; and even before he had delivered the letter, or had a clinical examination.

Last year, in a telling article by Banks and Coutu, in Harvard Business Review, some clues were given on how to protect your job in a recession. Suggestions included starting to act like a business partner and a survivor if you really want to be one. Studies show that supervisors and management will often choose workers that are more congenial than those who might be more capable but difficult to work with. It was also suggested that workers be ambidextrous and wear multiple hats, aiming to improve efficiency.

The basic plan is not to become depressed, helpless and hopeless. The article noted that studies of concentration camp survivors showed that a central, defining requirement for survival is to see a good future ahead rather than bury your head in the current quicksand. The article did not note that the black West Indian history of survival during slavery was based on this fundamental strategy whilst we were labouring under inhumane conditions to build much of the western world on sugar and spice and everything but nice. The successful West Indian response to this present world crisis is predicated on a thorough re-examination of our past histories and conquests.

In these times, even if you are employed, you should have a survival strategy in case the worse comes and you lose your job. You should carefully consider and plan for working for yourself or joining a group of similar workers and starting something new or unique. To become the best worker you can be in any company, you might have to lose your job during a recession and work for yourself to redefine your work ethic and possibilities. In the while, companies will have to be wise enough, or be forced by circumstance, to take on the original, primary aim of the trade union movement, or risk going under.

While you are working for yourself during hard times, you must make yourself more marketable for the future, when a job turns up. Self employment will enable you to discover that ultimate and yet fundamental journey that all workers, management and union officials will have to undertake to realize the post slavery and post colonial meaning of work. It will change the concepts of terms bandied about, like union, employers’ federation, trade union, chamber of commerce, workers union, or, the perfectly named, trade-and-labour union.

Working for yourself will not only prepare you for the best company you can keep, it will prepare you for the best partnership company that can keep you; the Novelle dictum, if you wish, for these and all times.

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