• The Histories of Labour vs. Neo-Liberal Mythmaking

    The role of trade unions in contesting neoliberal ideas of wealth, productivity and social protection

    Presented by Comrade Faviola Whittier at the Caribbean Workers Forum on August 9th, 2019.

    As we engage with the theme of this conference, it is helpful to take a step back and consider the contexts in which we have these conversations. What do we mean when we say “wealth”, “productivity” and “social protection”? How have we, as Caribbean people subject to the forces of global capital for the last 500 years, developed and constructed these ideas? While we are receivers of the major global narratives – wealth is for the deserving, personal productivity is the only legitimate source of wealth, social protection discourages productivity and independence – we are also producers of our own narratives. Our stories do not have the reach of those supported by global capital, but they exist and can be nurtured and promoted. Especially relevant to the conversations at hand are the narratives of the Labour Movement and their contrasting concepts – wealth, productivity and social protection as the fruits of a society mobilized for the collective good.

    The Neoliberal Myths:

    Calling the ideas of neoliberals “myths” is not an attempt to belittle them or deny their power; rather it is done to point out the pervasiveness of these ideas. Everyone has heard of them. Many believe them to be true. They underpin a unifying, almost global, set of values that direct our behaviour and societies. These myths are spread via the movies, books, magazines, memes and the political discourse around us. Communism and collectivism are disparaged as denying individual freedom. The path to wealth and “freedom” is open to any and all who will push themselves, armed only with work ethic and ambition.

    It is not hard to connect, culturally, the academic and policy work of Milton Friedman to the upliftment of greed in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street:

    “Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

    One could argue that this is an extreme example, but the gentler, softly phrased equivalents abound. These myths are perpetuated in popular culture:

    ·       “’What's the secret to success?’ But there are no secrets. Be humble. Be hungry. And always be the hardest worker in the room.” Dwayne Johnson

    ·        “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it.” Steve Jobs

    Productivity is a personal activity, directed towards success. It is relentless, but we should not be worn down by this but uplifted by our “passion” and “love” for our work. Success is measured by fame and personal wealth – of course, you can also be famous for being wealthy as are the Kardashians and the Trumps.

    And what of those who do not succeed in these terms? What of those who cannot “be hungry” or find “great work”? The only option is the “grind” or the “hustle”. Support is not for the weak, it is the source of weakness:

    ·       “Government 'help' to business is just as disastrous as government persecution... the only way a government can be of service to national prosperity is by keeping its hands off.” Ayn Rand

    ·       “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.” Ayn Rand

    “Economic freedom” as the organising principle and guiding value of societies under neoliberalism. Value is placed on the freedom of consumers to choose and on the personal work ethic. There is no “myth” to support protecting those who cannot succeed. There is no acknowledgement of power, whether political or economic, or how the two interplay. There is absolutely no need for “social justice” because we are all equal and all equally capable of achieving success.

    Neoliberalism in our political discourse

    These principles and values are repeated here as we consume the cultural products that perpetuate neoliberalism. They are also repeated in the political discourse, forming convenient terms of reference for decisions that are questioned on the basis of the national good. The sale of shares in state-owned enterprises in Trinidad and Tobago was justified by then Prime Minister Mrs. Kamla Persad-Bissessar as facilitating “greater business participation” and “giving citizens a direct stake” [1]. Finance Minister Colm Imbert said the National Investment Fund bonds, issued in 2018, were “a gift to keep on giving to the people of Trinidad and Tobago.”[2] These justifications are based on the neoliberal myth of “personal greed is good” and “government ownership is bad”.

    These ideas were also used to clothe the closure of Caroni 1975 Ltd. in 2003 and the restructuring of Petrotrin with the termination of all employees in 2018. These were described as business decisions. Patrick Manning said of his decision to close Caroni 1975 Ltd. that, “Therefore in 2003, when the PNM government took the position that sugar was not economically viable—and the time had come to change it”[3]. There is no discussion of the displacement of workers in society or the value of the company’s assets in financial terms or as national resources collectively held. Under the neoliberal worldview, only the balance sheets and severance payments to workers are relevant.

    Similar language was used to describe the need to close Petrotrin. Prime Minister Keith Rowley delivered a national address in September 2018 describing Petrotrin as, “now [bordering] on insolvency, as its cost of operations far exceeds its revenue. Survival has only been possible through the non-payment of taxes and royalties owing to the government as well as the procuring of government guarantees for loans from financial institutions… We are all in this together.  We have all been paying towards the losses and debt that I mentioned. We are all paying to keep the bad situation going, and we will all benefit when we fix it.”[4] The variance between the published financial statements of Petrotrin in 2018 and Trinidad Petroleum Holdings in 2019 will be left to the accountants and the financial analysts. It is enough for current purposes to note focus on profitability, finances and the appeal to personal greed. There is no discussion, again, of workers in society, of nationally held assets or even the vast subsidies to the public that were paid for by Petrotrin.

    The Harm Caused

    Ironically, discussions framed in terms of personal ownership and independence from government interference obscure what we own collectively. They also elide debate about alternatives, whether liberal, socialist or otherwise. In the local context these alternatives are developed (as in UWI’s July 2003 Position Paper – ‘A Framework for National Development: Caroni Transformation Process or the report of the Lashley Committee on Petrotrin). They are made irrelevant under neoliberal terms. Thus, our nation finds itself shedding ownership in profitable companies such as the National Gas Company and First Citizens bank and shutting down non-profitable companies like Carioni and Petrotrin, throwing dependent communities into disarray, giving rise to suspicious land deals, increased transfers and subsidies and reduced production.

    In the case of former Petrotrin workers, there was a reduction in the terms and benefits for those who were re-employed by Heritage Petroleum. The work is both as profitable and as dangerous as it was before the closure of Petrotrin. The only change is that labour is no longer seen as rightfully having a share the value created by that them. There is not outrage and no resistance outside of the labour movement.

     “Capitalism and Freedom” vs “Capitalism and Slavery”

    Are the challenges and problems listed above new? Not at all. In 1937 Tubal Uriah “Buzz Butler spoke out against the displacement of ordinary people from their homes and villages to allow oil companies. Eric Williams outlined the failure of small farms in the face of competition from plantations using enslaved and indentured labour throughout the seventeenth century.[5] Since 1498, capital has been exploiting labour in Trinidad and Tobago. The justifications of neoliberalism, as opposed to imperialism or manifest destiny, are new but the outcomes are not – extraction of value, denigration of labour and vulnerability to global capital.

    Labour has developed and articulated different ideas which can be used to counteract the myths of neoliberalism. At his trial for sedition, Butler articulated the aims of the British Empire Workers and Citizens Home Rule Party of Trinidad: lawful trade union; the right of coloured workers and citizens to “reach the highest position of thought and labour”; protection from blacklisting, checking and laying off of workers by employers without notice; freedom from rates and taxes for the unemployed. [6]Some of these goals have been achieved and we may debate the relevance of others. What is noteworthy is that Butler spoke to the reality lived by people in Trinidad. Milton Friedman valued freedom above equality – Butler was more pragmatic and did not separate the social, political and economic. Ultimately, it is Butler who remains relevant to the needs of a people coping with the legacy of oppressed labour. We must attain peace, bread and justice all together, or we will lose all.

    What do Trade Unions have to do?

    As class oriented trade unions we have a responsibility, (or rather) a duty to defend our class interest whilst at the same time advancing a different vision for how society is to be organized, where people and not profit becomes the centre of development; where the values of justice and fairness becomes the cornerstone of political and economic life. Where our humanity is not determined by the market but by the collective dreams of ordinary working people.” Ozzi Warwick

    The labour relations work of union will always be one front of the battle for justice. It cannot be our only hope; we must also aim for social change. Organising labour means engaging with those who are not yet members, and ensuring our members are educated and politically aware.  The Oilfields Workers Trade Union is working to establish an alternative narrative to neoliberalism and to build relationships with external organisations and audiences.

    The alternative narrative we promote is founded in the history of the local labour movement. We cite the words and works of Butler, George Weekes, Joe Young and other home-grown and regional leaders. A person’s value in our society is guaranteed by our constitution, not based on what they can produce. When they can produce, they deserve fair terms and conditions. Our society should be fair to all. The wealth of the nation belongs to the nation. The benefits of productivity should remain with the people and the communities who produce. It should also be use in the service of the unemployed, underemployed, under-privileged and incapacitated workers.[7]

    Some of the goals local labour’s ideas, home rule, social protection, political freedom and economic freedom, improved standards of living, have been achieved. These achievements are constantly under attack, so the work of unions includes keeping them at the forefront of the national agenda and maintaining awareness that the vision has not yet been completed. It

    The OWTU communicates this alternative narrative through various means:


    •  Education: formal classroom training is a unique form of communication. It allows for an intensive exchange of ideas and prepares the officers and members in attendance to face ideological rebuttals.
    •  Social media presence: the fundamentals of communication have not changed, but the pace has. We need to maintain a presence on the popular social media sites and apps to be a part of the conversation. It is difficult to get the point across in the multitude of voices online, but it is possible, and it pays off in sensitisation to the issues and political/class identification.
    •  Traditional media: not everyone is online and the slower pace of interaction in traditional media can make it easier to refute well-established ideas.


    As for relationship building, the Union’s goal is to present itself as made up of real people who share the experiences of our audiences in different channels. We appeal to the reality that we all face - is this current setup working for you? How do you feel about crime, unemployment and instability? We also refer to the history of labour’s struggles: it is not new, it’s an ongoing struggle between capitalists and those they try to divide and exploit labour and petty bourgeoise. We claim the victories we have won (labour protections, home rule, leave entitlements and allowances), but maintain that the enemy is the capitalist system. It is based on glorifying greed and benefiting the few, has succeeded in co-opting leaders and political movements (Rienzi, Williams) and is continually exploiting the ordinary citizen.

    It is up to trade unions to take up the challenge of redefining our social mores. We must be guided and inspired by the words of Joe Young, “It is only class which can transform the society into a just and human one and every worker must see himself in this perspective.”


    [1] Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Address to the Nation, January 2015

    [2] Colm Imbert


    [4] Dr. Keith Rowley

    [5] Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery

    [6] Tubal Uriah Butler, “Butler Accused”. Butler Versus The King

    [7] George Weeks, “Butler and the OWTU”, Butler Versus The King

  • Vanguard
  • FITUN Proposal for National Budget 2011/2012