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A strike by any other name

Sunday, September 2, 2018

If the Joint Trade Union Movement of T&T's call goes ahead, the country will face another long weekend, this time through an illegal general strike this coming Friday.

Except for the fact you will never hear the word 'strike' coming from the unions' leadership. Why? Because the Industrial Court has a history of narrowly interpreting the legislation and ruling in terms of what the action is called—not what the action is in substance.

It is as if, for the Industrial Court, all it takes to turn a cat into a dog is to call it a dog and presto! It may still look like a cat, behave like a cat, and scratch like a cat but, for the Industrial Court, it is a dog because the union never said it was a cat.

This makes no sense and must stop. When a call for action is made that involves the unauthorised and indiscriminate withdrawal of labour (be it for prayers, rest or anything else), that's a strike. And an illegal one.

It does not mean that strikes shouldn't be allowed. In any strong democracy, workers are given protection to exercise their right to strike as part of a labour dispute. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as the right legislation is in place to make it fair and just for all.

First of all, the legislation must be clear about what a strike is: the unilateral withdrawal of labour. If either side fails to follow the procedure set out in law, preferably including secret balloting and proper notice, that shouldn't make it a lesser strike. Quite the opposite.

And the punishment for a breach of strike legislation should be equitable. Our current legislation sets the fine against a union on the losing side to half what an employer would have to pay. This makes no sense. A trade union may well have higher revenues than a company. Besides, this goes directly against a basic concept of natural justice: the punishment is for the act of breaking the law, not for who you are or represent.

And there should be a right for redress when unions act illegally. If a union's unlawful action financially damages a company, it should be made to cover that loss, just like workers and unions representing them are compensated when they are unlawfully treated by an employer. Redress should always be fair, balanced, equitable, and transparent.

All functioning democracies must also have clauses limiting or banning strike action in key services or areas. This is not to thwart workers' rights but to ensure that the wider public are not put in harm's way.

And giving euphemisms to industrial action by these groups shouldn't be tolerated. Days of rest, 'total policing' or medically improbable bouts of collective sickness are just acts of deceit the law shouldn't allow to prevail. Apart from being illegal, they also show a high level of duplicity and dishonesty, often from union leaders who spare no time to climb the moral high horse for everything else.

None of these legal principles are extreme (they are widely applied all over the world) or stop workers from fighting for their rights. But they stop their organisations from abusing their powers (and getting away with it).

That takes us back to the strike action planned for Friday. It should be stopped as it is essentially illegal and political. And if it is about Petrotrin, from an industrial relations point of view, that is a matter between Petrotrin's leadership, its workers, and their recognised union. Unless teachers and goat farmers have been dabbling in oil production through Petrotrin and we didn't know, they have nothing to do with that issue. Friday should be a normal day in the office, classroom or field for all of us.

Naturally, unions and their members, just like any of us, are fully entitled to voice their disagreement with whoever is in power and to exercise their democratic rights. The best way to do so is the simplest and most powerful of all: the ballot box for parliamentary elections. Illegal general strikes (or whatever they may name it) are definitely not one of them.


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