The paradox of recognition

This article was first published in the Trinidad Express Newspapers on October 27th 2019.

In Trinidad & Tobago ‘s Industrial Relations system ”Recognition “ resembles what used to  be referred to as “Plighting your troth” Which was promising to  enter into and stay in  a contractual relationship with another in  which both would  take responsibility for those under their  joint care.

Except  for one difference. In  industrial  relations in T&T   there is no  divorce unless one of the parties takes illegal industrial action (the equivalent to infidelity), or closes down for good (  or dies). The contract is made between a union and an organisation , not between workers and  managers, which is made clear in the Certificate of Recognition.  Dissolving the contract , even in the case of illegal industrial action  can only  take place if one of the parties applies to have it dissolved  in which case the court has the power to do so. This has never happened  and by common belief will never happen, whether the actual people in  either  side want or   do not want it .

Freedom of Association is a fundamental freedom granted  to each of us under sections  four and five of the Constitution of Trinidad & Tobago. Together with the Protection of the Right to Organise  it is at the core of those Conventions of the International Labour Organisation ratified   by our Government. This we have  legislated  in the Industrial Relations Act.

 The combination  can get complicated at times  On an individual level it means that  any adult has the freedom to  associate with any other  adult , (except if under legal restraint)  or any other organisation  such as   religious sects, even those of the Jim Jones variety that can brainwash and become lethal ; any political party that is duly registered, however  weird or outrageous its promises ;any trade union of  choice and any NGO  you may wish to associate with, even  outrageous ones like the Trap Door Spiders Society , named after a species of spider that pulls its  door shut after it enters its burrow to prevent any one else from entering. The TDSS is a males-only club created to  keep women out. It reminds me of the sign that used to be in front of the Queens Park Oval  which read :”No Dogs and women allowed past this point”

Freedom of Association is closely  linked to Freedom of Assembly and Protection of the Right to Organise , recognized as purveying the right of citizens to join in protest against what they regard as unjust laws or government policies .It is the right being  exercised  in Argentina, Hong Kong,  Washington, Spain,  Turkey, and  the Yellow Vests in France.

 Before Trinidad  had laws regulating  Recognition of trade unions, it often used to take a strike, (which  could become violent) to force an organisation to agree to enter into negotiations with a union  chosen by a majority of its employees.

Where it gets complicated is that the Freedom to Associate also, by definition, implies the Freedom not to Associate…..not to marry someone that repels you, not  to be forced to join or even associate with  a religious organisation, NGO,  political party  or Trade Union with which  you do not wish to associate. This is a fundamental freedom, but  not an unqualified one.

One of the restrictions on these freedoms is that, in exercising  one you should not thereby  be denying  the rights of another person.. No one can force you to join the Back Door Spiders Society  if you find that it is ridiculous , but if the rules of the society specifically exclude you, no one can force the Society to  let you in.  But mass protest action and social evolution can eventually  wear down and  influence the Spiders to change the rules. Even women, historically  those most  oppressed and excluded from power of any human group can now vote, hold religious  office  in most major belief systems ,  become Heads of State and International  Organisations and belong to the Queens Park Oval.

However,once Recognition has been granted  to a Trade Union in T&T , bar death and  breaking the law, nothing  such as abandonment can result in  divorce. In one of the most interesting judgements issued this year by the Industrial Court,  a relationship between a union that was duly recognized  by law  and subsequently  neglected to exercise its right  to enter into and treat with the organisation  for which it was recognized for thirty four years, has recently won a court award  which stated that  it is still recognized  even  after the long years of separation and inaction.

According to the  Award, It is the responsibility of both parties to  initiate, ( or try to , ) the interaction that gives meaning to the  relationship   If neither of them does,  both are  responsible, and  the terms  and conditions that applied when the relationship ceased remain those in law to be applied. There is a recognisable logic to  that reasoning , although the award, also with reason, noted that  the 34 year gap “will not justify  no increase in the terms and conditions of the workers”. Well it wouldn’t have to would it? The workers would long ago have found other jobs.

It did, however  cause a certain amount of confusion when the same judgement stated, and I quote:”” the recognized union ….retains the exclusive right to seek to have those terms and conditions altered. The employer….is not entitled  to alter those terms and conditions unilaterally  but must do so by collective bargaining….” Interesting paradox there.

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