Union movement can do more for members Editorial
Stabroek News
December 8, 2003

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More than ever now, the trade union movement has to address a wider range of issues than just simply bargaining for the best possible wages and fringe benefits for its members. It has a pivotal role in educating its membership and those outside of it, if it hopes to broaden its base, about how to secure their wider interests.

Let us, for example, take the National Insurance Scheme (NIS). How many of those who are members of TUC/FITUG affiliates really understand how the scheme works, how many contributions one must have before one is eligible for a pension and how to go about making the various claims. In recent articles in this newspaper, it has been made clear how records at the Scheme are inadequate and how members of the public experience difficulties getting around this problem. Ideally one would expect that the movement - given the importance of the Scheme's benefits - would have a help desk someplace within its structure to guide its members on how to access and maximise the NIS benefits payable to them and that it would have a hotline to the NIS for this purpose. One would expect that each affiliate would know like the back of its hand the number of contributions that each of its members has made to the Scheme so as to advise them on when they are eligible for pensions and how many more years they need to work so as not to lose this valuable retirement benefit. There may be such advisory units within individual unions but in the movement as a whole there is no sign of it.

This is only one of a number of areas. In the December edition of Stabroek Business there was a most illuminating piece on the likely transition of many pension scheme plans from the Direct Benefit (DB) system to Direct Contribution (DC). Such a change could have significant ramifications for the beneficiaries of the plans who would need to be made aware that they will probably receive lower pensions under the DC method, that these would be directly related to their contributions and that employers would not be required to make up any shortfalls as they are required to do under the DB system where the level of benefits has been defined. How many of the participants in these plans are members of TUC/FITUG affiliates is unknown but clearly it is the type of area that is a natural fit for the union movement especially where its members stand to lose benefits. It is apparent that one of the key factors driving the DB to DC changeover is the need for employers to reduce their exposure to shortfalls that crop up under the DB system. In these circumstances workers run the risk of being short-changed unless the transition to DB is fine-tuned and custom fit to a particular industry. It is a challenge that the union movement should not shrink from.

A similar challenge is the question of what will become of the Bauxite Industry Pension Plan in the aftermath of the recent layoffs in the industry and the need to decide whether contributions could be returned to those who will no longer be eligible for a pension. What role is the union movement and its bauxite affiliates playing in this process? Have they briefed and explained in minute detail to their membership what the stakes are in this process. A survey which will be used to make a decision on what happens is scheduled to get underway today. Will the targets of this survey be in the best position to answer the questions being put to them?

The restructuring in the Linden bauxite operations has put many former bauxite union members out of a job but at the same time filled their pockets with fairly hefty severance packages. Huge social issues are at stake here. These hundreds of persons can be left unguided to fritter away these sums only to become a burden to themselves and the township or the unions and their movement can step in and seek to offer guidance and financial advice on how best to squirrel away this money and apply it to productive use. Even though there has been talk about the unions' involvement in such an exercise, in the months since the latest retrenchment in the industry there has not been much evidence of this and those severed have been left mostly on their own. Groups like LEAP are also trying to help but there is still a far way to go.

There are many other areas where the unions can make useful inputs in improving the circumstances of their members: assisting them in tackling those infernal utility bills, establishing buying clubs etc. The possibilities are limitless. It requires the movement to get over politically inspired rifts, petty jealousies and inertia and to really begin seeing itself outside of the limited mould it's been cast in.

One of its immediate challenges is to find a comprehensive settlement of the longstanding rift in the movement which has weakened it and made it unable to function potently. A way has to be found to make the TUC and FITUG one united body.

It then has to put its house in order, account for and properly spend membership dues and mobilise capital to undertake these multifarious functions that fall well within its mandate. And that's only what's happening locally. At the international level, the union movement faces the same pressing questions that the government faces about preferences, commodity prices and special and differential treatment. Can it rise to the occasion?