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TCL strike a spectacular failure
Today marks the official end of the strike called by the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU), 90 days ago, to pressure the management and board of cement producer Trinidad Cement Ltd (TCL) into increasing its wage offer to the 600 workers represented by the union. The TCL strike may go down in T&T’s history as the least successful industrial action ever taken by a trade union in this country since the establishment of the labour movement in the late 1930s.
If the objective of the strike was to force TCL to budge from its wage offer of 6.5 per cent over a retroactive three-year period, then clearly it was a spectacular and demonstrable failure. The company is no closer to yielding to the pressure on May 26 than it was on February 27, when the strike notice was issued.
The TCL strike failed because OWTU president general Ancel Roget and the executive of the trade union issued the strike notice based on the entirely false premise that it is possible to get blood from a stone. Clearly, when the TCL executive told the OWTU’s negotiators that the company simply could not afford to pay its workers more than 6.5 per cent, the trade union felt that this was part of the give and take of collective bargaining.
The OWTU must have believed that TCL would have succumbed to its aggressive negotiating posture, given the success of its strike threat at Petrotrin, the state-owned oil company. It must have dawned on the OWTU, in the last 90 days, that TCL simply does not have the weight and importance of Petrotrin.
A strike at the oil company would have crippled this country—which is so dependent on vehicular transportation—damaged its economy and harmed its reputation as a reliable source of energy products to the region and the world. As it turns out, the strike at TCL was a massive inconvenience to users of cement, who were affected by supply challenges and higher prices, and there is anecdotal evidence that the economy suffered collateral damage.
But, at the end of the day, TCL was able to adjust its supply chain and import cement from its subsidiaries in Barbados and Jamaica. The union’s apparent misjudgment was based on a misreading of the true financial position of TCL. For the financial year ending December 31, 2010, TCL declared an audited loss of $80.3 million.
The company’s unaudited financial position as at the third quarter of 2011—the latest information available to the union before it took the decision to strike—was a loss of $131.9 million. That the union expected the company to grant its workers a double-digit wage increase in that context seems utterly naive.
The situation at TCL is even more amazing given that in January 2011 the company declared itself insolvent—as in unable to pay its debts when they become due—and had been negotiating the restructuring of $1.8 billion in debt with its creditors for 13 months when the strike was called.
Those negotiations gave any one of TCL’s creditors the right to “demand immediate repayment of all outstanding obligations” and have the company formally placed before a bankruptcy judge. In light of this threat of extinction, the union’s demands were not even in the ballpark of reality.
They should have been told so in no uncertain terms by TCL’s management—which should never even have countenanced a discussion of a wage increase, when what was actually called for were salary cuts.
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