R. Rose - Eye of the Needle
May 10, 2019
Wider responsibilities of leadership

It was particularly heartening to me and others with interest in the labour movement and the working people in general, to witness the very encouraging turn-out for this year’s May Day celebrations. In recent years this landmark occasion has not been well observed here in St Vincent and the Grenadines or in many other parts of the Caribbean.

The response to the initiative by Solidarity Inc. to not only sponsor, but to actually take the lead in organising the may day activities was quite good in the circumstances and should give a message to our trade unions in particular that workers have not forgotten this important date. Special praise must go to General Secretary of the National Workers’ Movement, veteran trade unionist Noel Jackson, for his sterling contribution to the success of the effort.

I was honoured to have been invited to be one of the speakers at the May Day rally. Thirty-eight years ago, I had a similar honour at the historic Workers’ day activities in Campden Park which was a prelude to the titanic struggle to “kill the Bills” in 1981. The atmosphere is very different today given the relative lack of interest shown by many in the top leadership of the labour movement.

Whatever the criticisms made against the then leadership of the union movement, when “push came to shove” the leadership of the CTAWU, Teachers’ and Public Servants joined with the smaller unions led by Calder Williams and the late Caspar London, both of which were representing agricultural workers on estates, as well as the relatively new National Farmers Union to ensure May Day activity.

Individually they had their political preferences and affiliations but did not make this stand in the way of trade union unity. That is why the fight to stop the repressive anti-worker legislation was so successful.

It is a message and lesson that today’s leaders must heed. I have heard one leader making lame excuses for not participating, citing the inactivity of the National Labour Congress (NLC). While that is true, the least one could do is organize activities of your union, if not in agreement with others. Petty squabbles will do us all no good. If there is a problem in the NLC then it needs to be addressed but the bottom line must be unity in the movement and in the working class. It is in the interests of ALL WORKERS that there is at least a basic level of unity among unions and solidarity between them. Joint activities on occasions like May Day can only help.

Today’s unions and workers face challenges very different from those of 40/50 years ago, though the fundamental contradictions remain. It is no longer a simple struggle for wages and better working conditions although those battles must continue to be fought. There are wider political, economic, trade and environmental issues facing the labour movement which impact on their room space. These cannot be ignored.

In particular the impact of globalisation and the changing nature of the work force along with the growth of the service sector are all matters which workers and their unions are forced to address. However they cannot be handled in isolation. Similarly the growing negative effects of climate change not only have detrimental consequences for the environment, they also produce constraints in the economy.

Even the very sovereignty of independent states, especially small island states like ours, is very much compromised by powerful states acting in the interests of big capital and intent on insisting that we do their bidding. Any attempt at resistance is met with financial pressure, economic sanctions, trade difficulties and the like. These call for a higher level of understanding of these issues on the part of those who purport to lead us, whether in the trade union movement, in business or social organisations or politically at a national level.

Rabble-rousing and needless confrontation are no substitute for deepening one’s understanding of the issues, from the lowest level right up to the global stage. We have to understand where our interests lie, with whom we should forge alliances and have a grasp of what are our fundamental challenges and who are our friends. Academic education and qualification are necessities of today, but so too is economic and trade literacy as well as political consciousness.

The demands of leadership have increased considerably, at all levels. Those who would offer themselves for public service, political leadership in particular, must face intense scrutiny and demonstrate that they understand the context in which we operate and the demands of the current age.

I was therefore puzzled and concerned to hear that the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) which ought to be presenting itself as an alternative government, proudly announcing its membership of the International Democratic Union, the global umbrella of some of the most reactionary, anti-people parties. Among them are Donald Trump’s Republicans, the right-wing Conservative party in the UK and its fellow troopers in Germany, France and many other countries. Surely one cannot be proud to be in that gang given its track record? Unless of course, one is either naive or willing to serve the interests of those who do not have our best interests at heart. What a pity!

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.