Tue | Sep 25, 2018

Militant unions, compliant elites

Published:Sunday | June 7, 2015 | 9:11 PMIan Boyne

We are now into the difficult part of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreement. It’s time to take the bitter medicine, public workers and your families. The IMF dictates that the wage bill can’t pass 9% of GDP, or the deal’s off. Take it or leave it. Or 15,000 of you are thrown out in the streets.
The private sector has come out in strong support for the Government’s position and has been urging public-sector workers to accept Government’s five per cent offer over two years. Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica President William Mahfood has expressed sympathy with the workers’ plight, but has urged them to take the small increase and not jeopardise the economic programme. Wait until the economy picks up, he urges. His executive director, Dennis Chung, is saying the same thing, and so is the president of the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, Warren McDonald.
They warn that workers will threaten their own interests if they force Government to pay them high wages, which will end up fuelling inflation and endangering the economic reform programme. The two newspapers, representing Big Capital, have also come out in strong support of Government’s IMF path, urging workers to keep cool heads, accept the five per cent and watch the economy grow. The Gleaner had a hard-hitting editorial last Thursday titled ‘Mr Dalley should do as he says’. (He had warned about 15,000 jobs being lost if unions push it.)
Says the Gleaner editorial: “The Government is finally telling public-sector unions the truth … . The answer is for the administration to have the courage to cut away the problem.” The Gleaner says it is for a better-paid public sector — but only if jobs are cut. Voicing its strong support for the IMF programme of austerity, the Gleaner editorial reminds that “an important benchmark of the programme is for the Government to run a fiscal surplus of 7.5% of GDP”, which is why Government can’t pay more than the meagre 5% over two years. “The reforms, of course, make sense,” says The Gleaner, noting that “the sensible” (ouch!) often point out that it has been mismanagement that has brought us to this state. On with the job of economic reforms, Government, thunders The Gleaner. Let the ‘populists’ go to hell!
“The more egregious wrong, over the longer term, would be for the Government to retreat from the project and to raise public-sector salaries without doing more.” The Observer, that same day, also came out with an editorial strongly urging public-sector workers to take the 5% and not endanger the IMF programme. “The bald truth of our economic situation is that whatever we do, we cannot bust the reform programme being pursued under the ambit of the IMF. We have come too far, suffered too much, sacrificed too painfully to give up now by being reckless. It took us decades of mismanaging our economy and living off debt to expect that we can reverse that in only a few years. We have to hold our nerve and look steadfast [sic] to the bigger picture.”
Government public-relations operatives must have been very happy to read the editorials on Thursday! The message of the necessity and inevitability of this IMF programme has been properly sold. On the other hand, we can dismiss that absolutely nonsensical, nakedly partisan and vulgar release from the Jamaica Labour  Party on Thursday titled ‘JLP stands with civil servants against a wicked  Government’. Why are these politicians so shameless in their propaganda and so disgustingly transparent in their attempt to exploit a national challenge? Writing nonsense about Government’s saving on overexpenditure on phone calls, new cars and consultants is such an insult to people’s intelligence that it warrants only contempt. But is there an alternative between stout elite support for the Government’s neo-liberal path and the JLP’s asinine talk about “wicked, uncaring Government”?
Interestingly, last Friday, two persons with impeccable Comrade credentials provided us with a calibre of progressive critique that was as surprising as it was refreshing. It was the launch of former People’s National Party (PNP) candidate and former Senate President Stanley Redwood’s book Change Without Chaos: A Case for the Transformation of Jamaica’s Constitutional Framework. Adviser to Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, Delano Franklyn, gave the main address. Those two Comrades provided a quality of analysis and a courageous critique of neo-liberalism that gave me hope in this deeply partisan society.
In his superbly well-researched, thoughtful book, Redwood inveighed: “It is always the regular Jamaican people who have to bear the bulk of the burden for the perennial structural adjustments and pick up the tabs for the repetitive economic fixes. They carried  the burdens  of the well-needed social transformation of the mid-1970s and then subsequent structural adjustments. The people were instructed to bite the bullet of the punishing austerity measures of the mid-1980s. The population suffered the cost of the high-interest debt burden occasioned by the financial-sector crash of the mid-1990s and it is the poor and working class who are once again being subjected to the cruelty of the current crushing macroeconomic fix.”
Is this Comrade Redwood talking? Yes. But he has not forgotten the socialist roots of his party and he has the courage and integrity to stand for the poor and marginalised who have been abandoned by civil society. Reading Change Without Chaos was a breath of fresh air in this neo-liberal fog. Stanley Redwood has done thinking people a favour by publishing this book. Progressives will be happy for his commanding voice.
He is not mincing words: “The administration should have found a better balance between the social and economic poles. The burden of a macroeconomic fix should also have been spread more evenly across the economic strata. Instead, the economic programme has resulted in the widening of the income disparity and the wealth gap. The JLP led administration of 2007-2011 and the PNP Government should have rejected ‘record profits’ in a shrinking economy, especially where those profits were being made … from the direct economic oppression of the general population. Austerity is both bad economics and bad politics.” Are Comrades Phillips and Dalley listening?
Comrade Redwood has some advice: “There are few austerity success stories and even fewer austerity administrations that survive ensuring elections.” Ahem. Redwood says, “The sad reality is that Jamaica is literally subsisting on borrowed existence, on borrowed time, with borrowed money. The Jamaican society is, in fact, a ticking time bomb.” Redwood continues: “Except for Michael Manley’s recognition that administrative tinkering was irresponsible, every post-independent Cabinet has failed to understand that a prosperous country cannot be built on rampant inequality and all have failed to implement the requisite changes to cauterise the social and economic haemorrhages.” You don’t have to guess where Stanley would come down on this recent wage dispute between the Government and workers.
I give you a quote from the theoretical father of modern capitalism, Adam Smith, in his lesser-known but more insightful book (of moral philosophy), The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “What improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole. No society can surely be happy and flourishing of which the greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”
As Delano Franklyn said in his own excellent address: “A market-driven economic model by itself will not correct income disparity. In most instances, it widens it. This then gives rise to social disorder, including the possibility of increased corruption.” Franklyn then went on to say, interestingly: “No amount of economic reform or increased allocation of programmes to assist the most vulnerable in the society, as important as these are, will alter this reality (of income disparity).”
The Gleaner and the Observer are more supportive of this Government’s   economic programme than Comrade Redwood who writes, “The current administration is far too focused on the blind pursuit of a macroeconomic fix. The concomitant and dogmatic structural adjustments and austerity measures with ‘debt-repayment-first ,growth-later policy have left very little scope for social or economic investments. Government should have pursued a more gradual and less painful process.”
What say you?

-Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ianboyne1@yahoo.com.