Who will lead labour after Lim Swee Say?

Love him or hate him (or puzzle at his odd quips), Lim Swee Say has been a fixture in the Labour Movement for the last 8 years and has exercised considerable influence in this sphere. But now that he has announced his clear intention not to fill the post again, the question is: who will (and will it matter)?

Every NTUC Secretary-General since Devan Nair has held a cabinet position, often concurrently. I don’t expect that to change this time around. Why this is so is probably because of the longstanding relationships between the NTUC and the PAP, as an alliance between the two had formed during the struggle for independence and during the years after. Some say that the PAP controls the NTUC. Others say that the NTUC has clout in government. Perhaps both are true.

Either way, this means that the pool of candidates is not very large – look at the cabinet. The other heirs apparent over the years have faded away – Josephine Teo, Halimah Yaacob and Ong Ye Kung all once held key positions but are no longer with the movement.

Neither Deputy Secretary-General Heng Chee How nor the Assistant Secraties-General: Ms Cham Hui Fong, Mr Patrick Tay Teck Guan, Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, Mr Ang Hin Kee and Mr Zainal Sapari seem to possess the political clout for the position.

In my reckoning, it seems possible that Josephine Teo may be positioned to take up the mantle, but at the same time she still doesn’t command the political power necessary for the position. It would be a step backwards as well, since she had already left the NTUC to fulfill her role as Minister of State.

Grace Fu seems another possibility, since she is also a minister in the PMO and well exposed to the private sector, but an another interesting candidate pops up within the cabinet.

Chan Chun Sing.

Kee chiu.

Kee chiu.

Whatever you want to say about him, he has a certain demeanour that the rank-and-file can understand; something that reminds me of Lim Swee Say – very “on the ground” (okay lah, “low class” if you’re a hater), in spite of a career as a SAF scholar. Moreover Chan Chun Sing was the chosen replacement for Lim Swee Say in my Buona Vista constituency. Who is to say that history will not repeat itself (because it is going to be the same people making these decisions)?

Chan Chun Sing as NTUC Secretary-General will throw up synergies with his current portfolio as Minister for Social and Family development. Hopefully his constant exposure to those who are suffering the most will mean that he will find avenues to raise wages to sustainable levels as NTUC Sec-Gen.

We’ll have to wait for October to see.

Union vs Employer: new dawn for collective bargaining?

Friday’s ST (Home section, p2) ran an article about the Singapore Industrial and Services Employees’ Union (SISEU) winning a court case against an errant employer. The NTUC’s legal arm, led by Mr Patrick Tay, took the company to the Industrial Arbitration Court for not giving annual increments to workers. Unusual.

Let’s face it, almost everyone in Singapore thinks that the best thing about being a NTUC member is the supermarket discount. You need look for no other anecdote to tell you that Singapore’s unions, at least to the face of the public, are practically unknown for their wage bargaining, dispute resolution, worker representation work. In other words, Singapore’s unions are best known for not being unions.

The NTUC has long been accused of being in bed with both government and businesses (and not without reason). Many workers have seen wage stagnation and breaches of workers’ rights and have no idea who to turn to for recourse.

That’s why this little news report sticks out. 41 unionised workers got a ruling for a built-in annual wage increase of 2.5%, or $50 (more than 2.5%) if they earned less than $2,000 – less than the 5% initially sought, but within the NWC guidelines.

NTUC’s Patrick Tay, who is also MP for Nee Soon GRC, shared that his legal arm fought four cases in court last year. One was even for PMEs, who are not even normally represented by unions. When the Industrial Relations Act is amended to give PMEs union representation in the future, you can bet that Patrick Tay’s team will start to get really busy.

Until then, the best thing to do is spread that this union membership thing isn’t just for discounts. If all else fails you can still sue your union.