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TRINIDAD: Charging Betrayal, Labour Unions to Form Own Party

PORT OF SPAIN, May 1 2012 (IPS) - It was a marriage designed to remove the ruling People’s National Movement (PNM) from office in the May 24, 2010 general election.

That goal was achieved. But now the labour faction of the five-party coalition People’s Partnership government has grown increasingly disillusioned with its one-time allies, and has announced plans to make the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) a political force to be reckoned with in the politics of Trinidad and Tobago.

Veteran trade unionist David Abdulah, the newly appointed MSJ leader, said his mission is to make the MSJ “the political home” for working people. He has since tendered his resignation as head of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and Non-Governmental Organisations (FITUN) to concentrate on the MSJ.

“FITUN played a crucial role in bringing consciousness to the level where it is, where no government is safe from mass criticism and mass protest and no government is safe if they go against the interest of the people, and I think what we did over the years contributed immensely to that,” he told reporters, adding now the intention is to build the MSJ.

“I think we have to become a mass party… So the responsibility is to get the message of the MSJ out there in the country – that this is a party that working people ought to belong to,” said Abdulah, a government senator.

“It is our intention to become the most important political party in Trinidad and Tobago. It does not say we will be the largest, but the most important as we will be representing the interests of who we consider the most important people, which is the working people and marginalised and voiceless.”

Abdulah has carried this message to other trade union leaders, who have been calling for labour to be a serious threat to the established political parties including the PNM, the ruling United National Congress (UNC) and the Congress of the People (COP).

Late last month, the MSJ which was established during the 2010 general election campaign and positioned itself as a labour and popular movement-based political party, elected a new executive, passed a constitution and agreed on a draft policy document whose principles include “placing the people first and at the centre of development; ensuring that there is social justice, equity, decent work and sustainable livelihoods for all; gender equity and respect for the environment.”

It said that the principles were based on commitments to “promote and defend participatory democracy, (and) provide for the political education of our people so as to stimulate their consciousness and guide their patriotic, moral, social and cultural development”.

The MSJ noted that it would also “support and extend solidarity to all peoples who are struggling against all forms of domination and anti-democratic practices everywhere throughout the world”.

When it joined the other four parties in forming the coalition government here, the MSJ said its mandate was to ensure that labour policies formed an integral part of the new government’s agenda.

But two years later, it has struggled to get the Kamla Persad Bissessar administration to support its positions, ultimately branding the current government as one of the most anti-labour this oil-rich twin island republic has ever seen.

It asserts that the government instituted a state of emergency last year primarily to thwart the efforts by the labour movement to stage protest demonstrations across the country, and was also engaged in policies that showed “a “lack of respect and regard for labour”.

Leader of the powerful Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) Ancel Roget last week publicly tore up a manifesto of the UNC, the majority leader in the coalition.

“The government cannot say or even imply that they have the support of the labour movement … they have betrayed the workers of this country,” he said.

Vincent Cabrera, president of the Banking, Insurance and General Workers’ Union (BIGWU), agrees it is time for the trade union movement in Trinidad and Tobago to get directly involved in politics.

“We can no longer be content with only economic struggles on the negotiation table. We have to seek the political kingdom and allow workers to occupy their rightful place, where those who labour hold the reins of power,” he said.

Abdulah said that the MSJ would reconsider its position within the government if certain policy measures were not given adequate consideration by May 24.

“These policy decisions, we believe, have been in conflict with the interests of labour, whose interest we represent,” Abdulah said, noting that the May 24 deadline coincides with the second anniversary of the coalition’s victory in the 2010 general election.

Last month, the OWTU gave the MSJ an ultimatum – it would either withdraw from the MSJ or the MSJ withdraw from the government – after it accused the coalition of adopting anti-labour policies, including a cap on wages in the public sector.

Abdulah, who along with Labour Minister Errol Mc Leod are the two MSJ members in the government, said that a number of major issues had been identified for immediate attention by the government.

These include the settlement of negotiations in a fair and equitable manner consistent with the free collective bargaining process; allocating a fair share of state resources to communities and the equitable distribution of jobs; an end to reduced rights of land tenure and massive increase of lease rates to farmers without consultation; a process of constitutional reform and local government reform; addressing state sector governance; and ending all forms of discrimination, political victimisation, corruption, nepotism and patronage.

The MSJ also wants the coalition government to get rid of the “odious system” of contract labour in the public service and state sectors; advance the agenda of labour law reform; and establish a policy position “so as to stop the use of force by the Police Service to frustrate, intimidate and stop the legitimate and peaceful activities of civil society, including peaceful protest action by workers and the rights of the media”.

“We are not prejudging, but we do think that two years into the partnership is a significantly long enough time for us to fulfill the commitments which we made to the population of the country,” Abdulah said.

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