History is repeating itself as far as the trade union-government relationship in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) is concerned.
And, for the second time in about two decades the opposition has come forward as an advocate on behalf of trade unions amidst tensions with the government.
At an SVG Teachers’ Union press conference in Kingstown on Tuesday, president of the Public Service Union, Elroy Boucher said a question about the union being perceived as having aligned itself with the opposition was “much ado about nothing”.
The question came in light of the unions’ decisions to accept an invitation to have a separate meeting with Leader of the Opposition Godwin Friday and other senior members of the New Democratic Party.
Opposition lawmakers were also among members of the public, including opposition supporters, who stood with the executives of the union as they picketed parliament on Jan. 29 and Feb 4.
The demonstration coincided with the presentation of the Estimates and Budget.
Boucher told the media that 1999 onward to the March 2001 general elections, then opposition leader Ralph Gonsalves courted the unions.
“At a conference of the Caribbean Public Services Association, he was the featured speaker and in his address to the Caribbean trade union, the public sector union, including the PSU, he appealed to the unions to look at the issues that they were facing at that particular time and he identified many of them: the hostility toward negotiations and collective bargaining, the issues with promotions in the public service; he listed them and said these are problems you are facing as trade unions and they must be corrected.
“And he offered himself and his party as the hope in correcting them. There wasn’t any call, any issues, any big cry down or critiquing of those actions then.”
Boucher said that from 2000 onward, the unions “literally aligned themselves” because the ULP, led by Gonsalves, was offering themselves to help to address the problems that the unions had.
“He wrote to the unions in 2000 asking for meetings with the executive. There was that collaboration and, again, for one fundamental reason: it was thought that the issues that were identified had the support of the opposition and, therefore, the trade unions at the time felt that their best hope in addressing these issues was in aligning themselves [with the ULP].”
This, he said, resulted in the ULP gaining office in 2001.
“Today, we have the very same issues confronting us, the very same issues that the now prime minister who was opposition leader, cried against and was very critical of and said that they ought not to be.”
Among these, Boucher mentioned nepotism and cronyism in the public service and hostility to negotiations and collective bargaining.
“But that is what is happening today,” he said, adding that the opposition today has reached out to the unions and offered hope in trying to have the issues addressed by the government.
“Whether they do it in parliament, whether they do it as a prospective future government, hope is what is important and today, is not different in context to what happened in 1999 and 2000.
“The unions and public sector workers need that hope because we have a government who is hostile to negotiations, a government who is hostile to collective bargaining. This is an example right in your face, a government who would use the Constitution to literally prosecute its citizens, a government who would go public with its leadership and traduce and vilify the trade union leaders, a government who was against all these things in 1999 is now the perpetrator of all of these things.
“So a meeting with the opposition or the opposition coming out in support of the unions, we have to applaud it and we have to say whenever it happens again, we pray that it goes beyond the opposition, that the country itself can rise up and become conscious and see the times we are in; they are no different from the time in 1999 and 2000.”
Asked if he was not cynical about such an approach and what makes him think this opposition would act differently if it gets into office, Boucher said:
“In life, you have to have hope. And if all hope is lost, despair sets in. And hope is something we have to hold on to and faith. And not just faith in mankind, but faith in God…”
Meanwhile Teachers’ Union president, Wendy Bynoe, speaking at the same press conference said that her union had accepted the offer of the opposition to highlight, in Parliament, issues affecting the union.
She, however, said that the unions have not aligned itself with the opposition.
“We aren’t a political party, we are a trade union. We are not aligned to any political party. We aren’t an arm of any political party. We are the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers’ Union and the Public Service Union,” Bynoe said.
Regarding the hope that Boucher said the opposition brings, Bynoe said she could not comment on that.