For as long as the labour movement has existed in Trinidad and Tobago, women have been involved, sometimes at the forefront. They were well represented in the frontlines of the 1937 strikes in the oil belt, a significant turning point in this country’s trade union history. Even before that, women held key positions in the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association (TWA) of the 1920s, led by Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani. Among the women involved in those formative years of the labour movement were Eldica Alkins, a milliner, who headed the TWA’s Domestics Section, and Theresa Ojoe, who headed another women’s section of that union in Port-of-Spain. Another of the TWA’s female activists was Barbados-born Albertha Husbands, who was threatened with deportation from T&T for organising a strike of cooks and house servants. Helena Manuel formed the Trinidad Cocoa Planters and Labouring Classes Association, then joined forces with Hubert Carrington in 1929 to form the Trinidad and Tobago National Trade Union Centre, an umbrella union representing labourers. Then there was the legendary Elma Francois, who together with Jim Barrette, Christina King, Bertie Percival, Jim Headley and others, formed the National Unemployed Movement (NUM) in early 1934. That organisation eventually became the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association (NWCSA).
The NWCSA was responsible for the formation of three trade unions of the 1930s and 1940s, two of which still exist today—the Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union (SWWTU) and the Public Works and Public Service Workers Union—and the Federated Workers Union, now the National Government and Federated Workers Union (NUGFW). Ursula Gittens served as president of the Civil Service Association, paving the way for Jennifer Baptiste-Primus, who until a few years ago headed its successor organisation—the Public Services Association (PSA). The first and only all-female executive of a trade union has been in place in T&T since 1983. It is the National Union of Domestic Employees (NUDE), founded by the late Clotil Walcott and now headed by Ida Le Blanc. Today, however, women are not as well represented in the leadership of local trade unions, although their presence in the country’s workforce has increased significantly in recent years. According to a study done recently by the Banking Insurance and General Workers Union (BIGWU), while the growth rate of women in the workforce in the last two years has been significant—estimated at 30 per cent compared to nine per cent for men—this is not reflected in their leadership and participation in the sector.
Of the 35 trade unions in T&T, only eight currently have women on their executives and only one of those has a woman in a power position. Most women are in non-influential union positions as trustee and assistant general secretary. The BIGWU report continued: “Unions do not discourage women from seeking to hold office. However, they do not encourage, nor are there any mechanisms in place to support female participation and there is also evidence of biasness.” Baptiste-Primus, who led the PSA for 12 years, says it is time to address the issue of inequity within the labour movement. “One just has to look at the various executives of trade unions to see what’s going on,” she said. A major part of the problem, she says, is the way women have been socialised to “give way to men.” She added: “It’s a natural reaction.” Baptiste-Primus, who was the longest-serving elected full-time officer of the union, serving for almost 25 years, said it is imperative for woman holding top positions in trade unions to have the support of family and friends. “If my husband was not a supportive man, I would not have had a marriage. Sometimes we plan something together and then I have to call home and say, ‘Love, I’m sorry. I have to go to a meeting’. “Being involved in the movement demands a lot of time. The type of sacrifices required for women to attain leadership roles are much greater than (for) men. We are natural nurturers. Women have a tendency of putting others before themselves.” Not to be ignored, as well, she said is the fact that most unions are run primarily by men, so there is need to reinvent the wheel as it relates to the structures of trade unions.
“When you count the number of people comprising the executive, there are always more men. There is never parity. You might see four females and about 13 males. Some unions’ structures can be a bit intimidating and prevent women from moving up.” And then there are over-protective men, who Baptiste-Primus says simply do not like the idea of their wives/partners “interacting with so many men.” “Many of them don’t feel comfortable because their women are around men. Sometimes just to please the man they will give up the positions . . . The sacrifices are great. It’s a very thankless job. Having been there and knowing what it’s like, I do understand why more women are not involved.” Wendy Lopez, a clerical supervisor of the educational and research department in the Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU), believes women are well represented in the labour movement and at leadership levels. “The OWTU has women as labour relations officers who represent workers at grievance/trade dispute handling, and negotiation,” she said. “We have women as union officers at various branches, eg UWI, Petrotrin, etc, whose contributions and struggles are valued, as they assist with addressing and highlighting workplace issues. “The women of OWTU’s central executive, the general council, the branches and the various departments are committed to address the concerns of women, working class and the national interest, as we continue to provide support in the struggle to defend those fundamental rights of workers. Admitting that it wasn’t always that way, Lopez, 53, who has been with the OWTU for 32 years, said over the last 20 years the tides have been turning. “We continue to dialogue, to increase consciousness-building, in the hope that more women will become bolder in the struggle for social justice,” she said.
Labour consultant Steve Theodore said women still playing catch-up in the labour sector is not unique to T&T. He said across the world, the percentage of women leaders in trade unions continues to be significantly lower than men. “Unions must take up the task of recognising the importance of female leadership in terms of representation. This issue has not been tackled by trade unions. There is still an important struggle that needs to be waged,” he said.
What’s the solution?
Theodore believes it’s education. “I advocate for women to educate other women to bring the issues to the forefront and make sure that the union makes particular provisions to ensure women are represented,” said Theodore. “They should bring more attention to finding avenues to ensure women’s participation is maximised.” Theodore said it also requires a change in the way people view gender roles: “You will be surprised how many people still think that a woman’s place is in the home.”
Some countries have managed to get it right, however. Theodore, who has worked with international unions, says the United States and Latin America are leading the way in making women an integral part of their labour movements. “They have strong unions and women are often in the forefront,” he said. “In T&T, we still need to tackle, address, challenge and create specific mechanisms to promote women’s participation within our union’s rank and files.”
—with reporting by Cherisse Moe