One need not try too hard to guess what class of society Mrs. Diana Mahabir-Wyatt belongs to with her latest letter to the Express Editor entitled “Industrial Relation Act Gives Government Power to Act”. In her letter she outlined briefly how the Industrial Relations Act was established and the fact that the Industrial Court was established under said Act to deal with current issues such as the current impasse between the Government and Trade Unions. She lamented the fact that both Government and Trade Unions are refusing to refer their matters to the Industrial Court and questioned whether they wanted a reasoned and sober solution. I find it very disingenuous on Ms. Mahabir-Wyatt’s part to give mention to the Industrial Court without mentioning the fact that said court is underfunded and short staffed hence any matter that is referred to that court takes years to resolve. Whether her failure to disclose such blatant and well know facts was deliberate or due to ignorance is not certain, and while I cannot speak for employers such factors do weigh heavily on the minds of Trade Unionists who are seeking a speedy resolution in the interests of members that does not constitute blindly accepting 5% or whatever unreasonable offer is made by the employer.
Mrs. Mahabir-Wyatt then paid particular attention to Section 69 of the Industrial Relations Act which prohibits members of the Public Service, the Teaching Service, the Prison Service, the Fire Service and the Central Bank from going on strike. The Act further states the holder of an office in a trade union who calls for or causes industrial action to be taken or who induces or persuades any other person to take such action is liable on summary conviction to a fine of $10,000 and to imprisonment for 18 months." In Mrs. Mahabir-Wyatt’s estimation “industrial action” is an illegal strike which attempting to “shut down the country” would qualify as, and she lamented the fact that the government is ignoring the law and in her estimation, stated in closing that “we like it so”.
Quite frankly anyone who understands basic human psychology will know that the government of the day, whomever they may be, will do well to not only ignore that draconian law but to delete it from our law books altogether. I was highly amused by Mrs. Mahabir-Wyatt’s letter and found it novice to say the least, but worst yet I found it to be dangerous and void of deep contemplation as to the social consequences that could occur should the government take such a high handed approach. I was totally surprised that Mrs. Mahabir-Wyatt thinks that public servants striking despite a law preventing them from doing so is some kind of novelty and something unique to Trinidad and Tobago. On the contrary whether the right is given or not public servants, federal employees or civil servants as they are called in different parts of the world exercise the right to strike without compunction in countries such as Australia, United States, Canada, England, India and France.
As a matter of fact in the England from where our Westminster System came, public servants are not denied the right to strike unless their duties are necessary for the safety and security of the public. Civil servants in France are granted the right to strike under the French Constitution and in Canada at least five provinces grants public workers the right to strike, the others allow strike action even though it is not legal, while all prevent them from striking if they belong to the protective services. Even at a Federal level Canadian federal workers are allowed to strike within statutory limits as per the Federal Public Service Staff Relations Act of 1967. Despite having a long history of anti-strike laws, in the US today there are no less than 38 states which prevent public sector workers from striking and 12 states have actually legalized public sector striking. In his 1998 report “Behavioural Determinants of Public Sector Illegal Strikes”, Robert Hebdon surmised that due to the many laws that attempt to prevent workers from striking, in systems like the US and Canada the “illegal strike” is an inevitable element of these industrial systems.
S.T. Cooke summoned it up more precisely when he stated “Taking away the right to strike is a bit like eliminating the vapour safety valve on a boiler. Employees need to know that they have this means of relieving their frustrations and internal tension even if they never use it. Otherwise an explosion is inevitable”. The consequences of a government’s high handed approach can be seen in the manner in which the Reagan Government dealt with the striking Air Traffic Controllers back in 1981. Federal law required federal employees at that time to take an oath not to strike and made strike action illegal. Needless to say talks between the Professional Air Traffic Controllers and the Federal Aviation Administration broke down and the workers went on strike. The US District Court ruled the strike action illegal and a contempt of court and President Reagan ordered the firing of all air traffic controllers who did not return to work within forty eight hours of his order.
Despite the legal sanctions and threat of job loss only 800 employees returned to work within the President’s 48 hour deadline. Dismissal letters were issued to the non-compliant employees, however it must be noted that despite the Reagan Government’s firm stand, the entire action against the controllers proved to be totally ineffective. The sanctions totally disrupted air traffic services and the government precluded any form of settlement with the majority of the traffic controllers which ultimately aggravated the very situation they sought to remedy and prevent. After all was said and done it was the public and the economy that suffered the most from the firing of the air traffic controllers. Hence the reason I stated earlier that Mrs. Mahabir-Wyatt’s stance that the government implements the law seems novice to say the least and not well thought out.
I would also like to inform Mrs. Mahabir-Wyatt that the Industrial Act notwithstanding the fact that it is our national law, does in fact run counter to International Labour Conventions. The International Labour Organisation has repeatedly admonished and advised successive T&T Government’s that their term ‘essential services’ in the Industrial Act is excessively broad in comparison to International Labour Standards and it is successive T&T Governments, who are the agents of citizens of Trinidad and Tobago and who are supposed to be acting in our best interest, they are the ones who have repeatedly refused to amend the Industrial Act as advised by the ILO. The ILO has also repeatedly made calls for the Government of T&T to change the Collective Bargaining Laws of the Act which state that collective agreements must be for a maximum of five years and a minimum of three years making it almost impossible for workers on short term contracts to be covered by such agreements.
Mrs. Mahabir-Wyatt, now you understand why our government obstinately refuses to comply with International Labour Standards, it also explains their fondness for hiring people on contract! Our government the body which is supposed to be seeking our interest has been deliberately denying entire sectors of our economy, their legitimate rights by refusing to comply with International Labour Standards. As it stands the Industrial Relations Act of T&T is a flawed piece of legislation that runs counter to International Laws and Standards. As a matter of fact just as recent as April of this year the ILO Committee of Experts condemned the UK Government for preventing and denying prison officers the right to strike. The ILO has indicated that the UK Government either gives prison officers the right to strike or have adequate compensatory mechanisms in place to compensate prison officers for denying them the right to strike. Is Mrs. Mahabir-Wyatt aware of any such compensatory mechanisms in place for our security services here in T&T?
And last but not least, though she tried to make a joke of it, Mrs. Mahabir-Wyatt’s suggestion that the government acts with regard imprisoning for 18 months any one holding a trade union office and who instructs public servants to strike, had to be the least thought out aspect of her letter. Why would anyone advocate the jailing of any trade unionist at a volatile and heated industrial time like this is beyond me. I guess if nothing else we can all breathe a sigh of relief that Mrs. Mahabir-Wyatt is not the first female Prime Minister of this country because I dare say, the very state of emergency which the government claims to be dodging would have certainly been upon us by now. I’m keeping my fingers cross that Mrs. Persad-Biessessar would demonstrate a more levelled and reasoned head and contemplate deeply on her actions with regard this current labour impasse than her counterpart Mrs. Mahabir-Wyatt. As a former executive director for the Caribbean Centre for Human Rights I must say I'm surprised by the sentiments expressed by Mrs. Mahabir-Wyatt.