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Meet a Member: Patrick Frost

After a Quarter Century as General Secretary...

As fingers extract letters from their envelopes, he shuffles through a sheaf of correspondence, noting various names and places, times and dates. One remarks the occasional raised eyebrow when some alleged fact or figure doesn't mesh with his recollection of events and circumstances. A mental note is made and perhaps a (lengthy) letter of inquiry will be dispatched. Patrick Frost, coming to the end of his 25-year tenure as General Secretary of the Barbados Secondary Teachers Union, seems to be as chipper as ever. BSTU-online catches up with him for a spot of reminiscing.

BSTU-online: It's hard to remember a time when Patrick Frost was not associated with the BSTU and the Barbadian trade union movement in general, when did you become a member and what motivated you?

PDF: As a young teacher joining The Lodge School staff back in September 1962, a certain Mr. Alexander Hoyos (later to become Sir Alexander Hoyos) made sure to induct me into an organisation then known as the Association of Assistant Teachers in Secondary Schools (AATSS); this association became the BSTU in 1970 after a re-writing of its constitution following the 1969 strike (and we shall get back to that affair in a moment). The reasons for joining a union? Well, they were obvious: to be part of a professional body and to receive - as well as provide - proper representation on professional matters.

BSTU-online: What was the state of the union movement back then?

PDF: Well now, one should make a distinction between the general workers' union - the BWU - and the AATSS / BSTU, the only teachers' union at the time. The BWU was still very much actively engaged in the struggle for fundamental proletarian workers' rights such as freedom of association, collective bargaining, remuneration, etc. Those were the pioneering days, with such landmark confrontations as the strike against the Advocate Newspaper in the 1950s, the Retail and Commission Merchants strike after that, then the walk-out on Clarke & Tucker…that wasn't the modus operandi of the lone teachers' union during that era. Firstly, we were much smaller, with a membership of around 100, and more concerned with "in-house" issues, as it were. Our fight was to redress such anomalies as some schools not having deputy principals, pay discrimination between first and second class honours graduates, principals' salary scales at some schools being inferior to others (up until the 1990s, primary school principals were still divided up into 3 "grades"). Eliminating such prejudices took time, a long and sometimes tortuous exercise.

BSTU-online: The two main political parties of Barbados emerged from trade unions. In your experience, how have the teachers' unions helped to mould contemporary Barbadian society? Were there any defining critical events/ confrontations?

PDF: Let's not forget that much progress is made without resorting to overt confrontation such as industrial action. The collective bargaining process usually entails meeting the same set of people again and again across the table; over the years you learn to build relationships and a healthy respect for the other's point of view. It is better to exert influence rather than apply force…having said that, there were indeed times when the picket line proved the only recourse: the 1969 teachers' strike was highly significant since that was the first time in Barbadian history there was mass industrial action not by blue collar but white collar workers (many of whom were actually white). This was unheard of. The Prime Minister of the day wasn't accustomed to having any group stand up against him in the way we did. The usual negotiation process collapsed when the government broke off talks, so it was time to - as a certain Leroy Trotman would say - "bring them back to a Christian understanding". The entire society sat up and took notice; we had the broad-based support of our membership and the parents. Well, those three weeks out of the classroom were not in vain: The settlements and accommodations entered into as a result of that strike have endured to this day.
   The second defining moment was when a group of "radical" young teachers broke away from the Civil Service Association and formed the Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT). Those BUT founders brought a different mindset to unionism in teaching: there was a shift from the traditional conservative low-profile approach to a more broad-based mass movement, eager to disseminate their views via every medium at their disposal, they were particularly strong on producing regular publications…and they had the manpower and resources to do it. They were more volatile …and vibrant… than we were at the BSTU, it was an interesting and refreshing difference.

BSTU-online: The post of General Secretary of the BSTU has become synonymous with Patrick Frost, but why is it you never stood for the post of president?

PDF: Interesting question, that. I suppose if I had any useful skill to offer my colleagues, it was my facility with a typewriter and - as some would allege - a certain eagerness and dexterity in using copious amounts of the English language when pleading a cause. The position of General Secretary suited my skill set; more importantly, the idea of being president and delegating tasks to others was never my cup of tea. The secretariat is always the hub of any organisation, the main artery of communication where things get done, that suited my temperament.

BSTU-online: Some would say you chose to be the king-maker rather than the king…

PDF: [with a chuckle] Is there any reason why one can't be both? In any event, I have never seen myself in either role. All executive members, including president and general secretary, are put there to serve. It is true that from time to time you are obliged to make a decision on behalf of those you represent without always having the opportunity to consult with them beforehand. Such is the nature of leadership, and it is not as glamorous as some would imagine. In fact, it is often difficult to find a soul willing to take on the presidency of our union because of all the work it entails. The same goes for the positions of treasurer or general secretary. Believe you me, when you do discover someone who is both willing and able to take office and put nose to the grindstone, we at the BSTU hang on to him or her for dear life! Most of the time, we've been lucky to find "the good few" - and some of them have gravitated towards the position of treasurer - who have remained constant and seemingly evergreen. As a matter of fact, whenever our organisation has been through a testing time, some brave soul has always stepped into the breach. In 1969, on the eve of that famous strike, the president at the time resigned 15 minutes before industrial action was due to start; the vice president, Doreen Mapp, took over the mantle of leadership without any hesitation and led us through that testing time admirably. Actually, it was not mere chance that the president was male while the vice-president female; this gender-balance has always been part of our unwritten convention regarding the election of the two top executive posts.

BSTU-online: It is believed that the trade union movement is less vibrant (and relevant) now that Barbadians are better off materially. Is that so?

PDF: One must recognise that times change and trade unions must change with them. The union movement in Barbados has been fortunate not to suffer the setbacks experienced by our North American and British counterparts where, in the former case, membership has fallen from over 30% to just about 13%! Our union membership has stayed fairly constant over the years and consolidated into the "social partner" concept, the catalyst for such consolidation being the 1991 economic restructuring crisis in Barbados.

BSTU-online: The Social Partners' role has been criticised in some sectors as being ineffective, how would you respond to that?

PDF: Those who criticise it on those grounds perhaps do not understand the Social Partners' mandate. It's like criticising a vase as being a very poor soup bowl! I'm not saying that all criticism is unmerited, but the entity is still developing and its role is still very much that of co-ordinating the efforts of its member organisations. Indeed, in this era of globalisation, consolidation is more than just a buzz word. In Barbados and elsewhere, I fully expect to see trade unions merging to make better use of their pooled resources. In a way, the existence of CTUSAB represents such a merger. And, please, make no mistake, despite the considerable progress that has been made, there are still battles to be fought and won. We may have more worker representation on the various institutional boards and committees across the island, but do not think that the level of such representation is sufficient. There are still areas where it is sadly lacking. In short, as long as there are employers who are less than perfect in their dealings with the workforce (and there are lots of them still about), there'll be a need for the services of trade unions. The umpire has not signalled the end of play yet, not by a long shot.

BSTU-online: So, how will you occupy your time after this "second" retirement?

PDF: After retirement, hmmm… [pauses a bit and scratches his chin] Well, it'll probably take me about two years to sort through and catalogue all the various documents accumulated over the years… there are quite a few hastily scribbled aide-memoires, most of them legible only to Patrick Frost (and therefore rather useless to any future General Secretaries), those will have to go. I suspect they'll still invite me to sit on some committee every now and then, such opportunities will always excite my interest. You've got to bear in mind, however, that after reaching a certain age, one does not think in terms of a "future", you have to hope for an "extended present". I hope my presence will be extended long enough to enjoy the grandchildren, tend to the sheep, cut the grass around the house, watch a bit of cricket…

BSTU-online: On the topic of sheep, there's a certain legendary ram owned by Patrick Frost that is famed both for its bad temper and wisdom since it has allegedly given much sage advice on union matters! Is it still around?

PDF: Ah yes, you refer to 51, an oracle if ever there was one... unfortunately he has passed away but the last of his progeny is very much with us and you will discover, if so foolhardy as to stand too close to him, that he can deliver a butt with even more force than his father!

There are so many more questions that could be asked of this gentleman on this January afternoon, but other appointments demand his attention. For Patrick Frost, even though he approaches the end of his official tenure of service, the time for repose seems as far away as ever.

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