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The new face of trade unionism

Thursday, June 18, 2015
Joanne Alexander-Cornwall believes that young people need to be involved in trades unions and have a say in their futures. PHOTO: JEFF MAYERS

Joanne Alexander-Cornwall, a TSTT employee, also serves on the Executive of the Communications Workers's Union (CWU) as its Deputy Treasurer. Aged just 37, she is a trade union activist and a budding attorney awaiting to be called to the bar. Alexander-Cornwall, a product of Gasparillo, had her schooling at Gasparillo Composite School, St Kevin’s College, Keith Beckles Law School in Couva and Institute of Law & Academic Studies, Chaguanas. She has one sister, Josanne, and describes herself as something of a tomboy growing up. Alexander’s hobbies include cross country driving, hiking, sight seeing and travelling abroad.

Alexander-Cornwall thinks that trade unionism is relevant to today’s youth. She added: “I would say there is a balance in this regard, though it benefits young people to become involved in a trade union. If you look at most progressive unions today like OWTU, CWU, BIGWU etc there are a lot of youth officers, primarily because this has been a case of your parents working in the oil fields and cane fields, or in the same establishment and we have seeing and experiencing the benefits, and because of the understanding of these benefits. Through the blood, sweat and tears of the past generations, we live to carry on this said legacy. 

“In terms of attracting today’s youth, most young people are afraid of joining a trade union merely because of the lack of education and the wrong concept of what a trade union represents. Most people see a trade union as an entity which comprises rebels and aggressive workers. 

“Most young people have the fear of opening themselves to victimisation and even worse feel they can lose their job if they decide to defy their employer and join a trade union. Education is the key. There is clear evidence of union-busting by some business organisations. This is illegal in T&T. Union busting refers to activities undertaken by employers, their proxies, and governments, to prevent workers from freely organising, joining and maintaining trade unions.

So, why did Alexander-Cornwall join a trade union? “Trade union is in my blood,” she admitted. “I became active in the CWU from the inception of my joining TSTT in 2000. Initially, there was not really a choice; it was a rule on the ground. You joined the company and the next step is to join the union. After doing so, it was a way of life for me. 

“I have a passion to fight for what is right, just and due. I knew to myself this was a way to engender the opportunity to see this passion materialise and it has. Nothing gives me more pleasure and a feeling of being vindicated after an oppressed/aggrieved worker smiles and thanks you for your guidance/advice or even representation at the Industrial Court and you walk out the winner. It strikes a balance in ensuring that someone is effectively and efficiently seeking the welfare of the worker. 

“As stated in one maxim of equity, ‘equity will not suffer a wrong to be without a remedy’. Although this should not be interpreted too broadly, I view myself and other activists of the trade union movement as a stepping stone to bringing this said remedy to the aggrieved worker.”

Individuals in the lower wage bracket, including domestics and fast food chain outlet workers are some of the people who readily join trade unions. Alexander-Cornwall said: “Primarily I would say militant workers or people who understand the meaning of struggles, both past and present, and the significance of the history of the trade union movement are most attracted to joining. Most times these people are the core activists who undertake the responsibility to increase the membership through education and campaigns. 

“Trade unions tend to attract people who seek solace in knowing their grievance will be handled efficiently and justly. The average employee working on minimum wage, the domestic worker, etc, they are our members; we are their voice of reason and yardstick for justice. 

“I would implore that young people invest in purchasing our book – Dare to Struggle – which was written by Ian Teddy Belgrave giving a history of the Communication Workers’ Union. It gives an insight and appreciation into The Birth of the Movement, Mass Movement Rises, The Jeans and Gym Boots Gang, One Man-One-Vote and historical events.”

Alexander-Cornwall urges the nation’s young employees to join unions and become active and proactive in them. “There is power and effectiveness in Collective Bargaining,” she said. “The individual employee possesses very little bargaining power as compared to that of his employer, therefore a union can take concerted action against the employer. The decisions regarding remuneration, work (overtime etc), transfer, promotion, etc are highly subjective in nature. A trade union can compel the management to formulate personnel policies that press for equality of treatment to the workers. The employees may join the unions because of their belief that it is an effective way to secure adequate protection from various types of hazards and income insecurity such as accident, injury, illness, unemployment, etc. The trade union secures retirement benefits of the workers and compels the management to invest in welfare services for the benefit of the workers. 

“By joining a trade union, everyone has a voice and someone to advocate for them, even the domestic worker who is represented by National Union of Domestic Employees (Nude), led by comrade sister Ida Le Blanc. I will also say I feel it is the responsibility of the working class to unite and pave the way for your children and other generations to come. Trade unions gave us sick leave, casual, vacation, protection under the OSHA (eg S.15 OSHA Act protects the employee through the right to refuse to work and your employer is debarred from taking disciplinary action against the employee). Maternity Benefits, Minimum Wages acts set the guidelines against exploitation and remuneration.”

Alexander-Cornwall says it is a myth that young managers in companies cannot become members of trade union. She explained: “Young people entering the workplace at management level can join a trade union. Once a person is a worker for a company, regardless of status, they are eligible to join a trade union by right and the law, as stated in Section 71 (a) of the Industrial Relations Act 1972. Of course, their decision to do so is one of choice and is not mandatory. No company has the right to refuse any worker access to a trade union. If they do this, they are breaking the laws of T&T.”

Alexander-Cornwall explained that an employer who contravenes subsection (1) or (2) of the Act is liable on summary conviction to a fine of $10,000 and to imprisonment for one year; and the Magistrate making the order for conviction may also order that the worker be reimbursed any wages lost by him/her and direct that, notwithstanding any rule of law to the contrary, the worker be reinstated in his former position or in a similar position. 

She added, “Young people, know your rights and eliminate the fear that seek to debar you from an organisation that has a duty to protect you if you are aggrieved and oppressed.”

• Read about young trade unionist Clyde Elder in tomorrow’s Metro Magazine, inside your T&T Guardian.


The Communication Workers' Union (CWU) is located at 146 Henry Street, Port-of-Spain and is a Progressive Trade Union, fondly called the "Khaki Brigade." The CWU was started in 1953 and has membership for TSTT (Jnr & Snr Staff); Hilton Hotel; Mega Brite; Massy Technologies; RBP Lifts. The CWU’s mission statement include its commitment to the defense and advancement of the lives of its members, the working class and underprivileged in T&T society. The Union’s 60th Anniversary Theme is "Always Dare to Struggle," is considered an epitome of what it stands for and represents. 


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