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Restore the Glory of May Day! - May 2 2005

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Restore the Glory of May Day!


It feels good to be back with you today following an unavoidable three-week break. In my capacity as Lead Prime Minister with responsibility for Justice and Governance in CARICOM, I had the duty and pleasure of attending and participating in the historic launching ceremony of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) in Trinidad & Tobago on April 16, 2005. Just before the CCJ ceremony, I travelled to Jamaica to be honoured by Chancellor Hall, the hall to which I was attached while a student at UWI, in Mona, Jamaica. And, of course, there was preparation, presentation and debate of the Annual Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure, which we simply describe as “The Budget.” This is always a consuming business.

Yesterday, May 1st, was a special day. It was May Day, the day when the struggles of working people throughout the world are recognized and celebrated. It is a day of homage, celebration and remembrance. It is a day that is sacrosanct to workers. It is a day that political parties ought to respect and concede to workers. Alas!


May Day has its roots in Chicago, in the United State. On May 1st 1888, several workers were shot and killed as they protested in favour of an eight-hour day. It is because of the blood shed by these Chicago Martyrs, that workers, in most countries, now enjoy reasonable hours of work.

For 127 years, May Day has been observed worldwide. In many countries, including Saint Lucia, it is celebrated with a holiday. (In other countries, like in the USA, the workers’ day is celebrated on Labour Day, which is on another date altogether.)


Unfortunately, the way in which we have observed May Day in St. Lucia has changed dramatically over the years. Once upon a time our workers looked forward to the celebration of May Day. The unions all planned major rallies -- some alone, some together, but all in the name of solidarity and celebration. The rallies featured speeches and solidarity messages and there was always a general sense and atmosphere of fun and celebration.

There were also times when observance of May Day coincided with major workers’ struggles, including strikes and other forms of industrial action. In such cases, May Day became a rallying point for mobilization of support by workers and their trade unions.

Over the past decade, however, May Day has been poorly observed in St. Lucia. Unfortunately, the unions have not been able to mobilize their members to participate in May Day activities as they used to. Most have been content with organizing poorly-attended rallies at their respective headquarters or other premises. No longer is May Day treated as a day when workers proudly sported their red shirts, dresses, caps and flags and sang the Internationale. Today, sadly, May Day is treated as just another day away from the rigours of the work place.

There are all kinds of explanations for the lack of interest. The character of the labour force has changed. Members only see value in unions when they want increases in wages. Few unions today are anchored ideologically or otherwise. Many unions have lost their membership because of the changing economic environment. Still others have weak and uninspiring leadership.


Equally unfortunate is the fact that over the past 25 years our trade unions have failed to come together under one umbrella to maximize their resources and to cooperate and collaborate on common issues. While some unions have shown a preparedness to work together, others have denounced solidarity to reaffirm their identify and narrow individualism.

As a former trade union leader myself, I can clearly recall back in those heady days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the largest and most militant unions formed an Industrial Solidarity Pact to promote their common interests. But no sooner had the immediate objectives of the day been met, coordination decreased and unions went their separate ways.


I would like to see a more organized approach to May Day celebrations. While the Government would wish to be more involved, it appreciates that any assistance offered to the unions could be misunderstood and interpreted as “patronizing”. So, it is wise to concede May Day to our workers and their trade unions.

As far back as 1999, the Government offered the trade unions a parcel of land to establish a headquarters for a Trade Union Congress or Council or any similar umbrella grouping of local trade unions. The only stipulated condition was that the proposed initiative must have the support of all the unions. Sadly, unanimous support is elusive.

I am, however, encouraged by the news of the existence of what has been described in the press as the formation of a Trade Union Federation. One can only hope that this is a serious initiative that will result in achievement of the long-elusive dream of effective and meaningful unity and cooperation between our local trade unions.

An umbrella body, such as the proposed Federation, would also help Government to dialogue with the Labour Movement on social and economic issues facing our country.


The Government has also done its part to create a more conducive legislative environment for trade unions. Legislation has been introduced to strengthen workers rights and to protect them against exploitation, be it their right to join unions or sexual harassment. Laws have been passed to strengthen trade unions – to ensure they are recognized and can function free of intimidation.


Then too there is the proposed Labour Code – the most comprehensive review of Labour Laws ever undertaken in the history of our country. This voluminous document has been on the table for the past three years and it has gone through review after review. I had hoped that the Code would have been enacted last year, but the Attorney General’s Chambers was unable to complete the process because of staff shortages.

Many workers are disappointed that the Code is yet to be enacted. They tell me so, frequently. I do hope that very soon we can produce a code that both employers and unions can accept. We cannot continue with archaic laws and outdated labour practices.


These times require adjustments by all of us. The employers have to adjust and readjust to the realities of a changed environment in which workers are more aware of their rights and responsibilities. The unions too, must adjust to the new local, regional and global realities.


Unquestionably, this country has experienced a period of industrial peace that it has never seen for many, many years. There can be no doubt that our trade unions as well as our employers have understood the challenging economic environment in which our economy survives. The climate of industrial peace that has been enjoyed over the years also reflects the sensitivity of our unions to the global changes and the inescapable effects on our economy. Frankly, I applaud and respect the approach of our unions.

But there are challenges. One is the issue of productivity. Are employers getting value for money? Are workers properly motivated to give of their best? Are we “losing out” to workers in other parts of the world? How do we measure and reward productivity?

The impending CARICOM Single Market & Economy (CSME) is another huge challenge. It will bring with it new opportunities as well as new anxieties for our workers and trade unions, for employers as well as for the State. It is the duty of the trade unions as well as the employers to prepare our workers for the inevitable adjustments that the CSME will bring.


One area in which trade unions need to be more engaged is in the area of strengthening democracy and accountability within their ranks.

Workers must insist that their union leaders be accountable for their stewardship. The unions belong to the workers and not to the union leaders. As such, it is the duty of the workers to demand from their leaders, the same level of accountability and transparency that these leaders demand of politicians and Governments.

Democratic practices must be strengthened within the unions. Workers must demand that they be given equal chance to vote in union elections. Those who pay the dues must insist that the financial statements of unions are properly audited and published for the benefit of all members.


When all is said and done, it is still my wish that our trade unions would begin to restore the old glory of May Day. We cannot afford to let May Day die. We owe it to those who struggled and died for May Day to ensure that we do not let their sacrifices be in vain.

So long live the Spirit of May Day!

Until next week, do enjoy the rest of this week and of course, your jazz! God Bless!


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