Sat | Oct 31, 2020

Editorial | Dwight Nelson served workers well

Published:Wednesday | December 26, 2018 | 12:00 AM

It is unfortunate that the enduring public image of Dwight Nelson is his appearance before the commission of enquiry into the Golding administration's attempt to prevent the extradition of Christopher Coke and repeatedly responding to questions by lawyers for the People's National Party (PNP) with statements of, "I can't recall".

For part of that administration, up to the point of Coke's eventual extradition, and including the period of the state of emergency in west Kingston, when Coke's militia challenged the Jamaican State, Mr Nelson was the national security minister. His performance at the inquiry left a caricature of fumbling incompetence by a man who had much to hide. The more likely explanation was that he was acting more out of party loyalty and felt himself unable to tell all that he knew.

The shame of that episode is that Mr Nelson, who died on Monday, age 72, was a highly intelligent and articulate man who contributed much to Jamaica, especially as a trade unionist. Indeed, his involvement in politics, on the side of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), was largely an extension of, and, in some respects, peripheral to his trade unionism, having, in the 1970s, joined the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), whose founder, like the JLP, was Alexander Bustamante.

Dwight Nelson was a protege of the former prime minister and legendary trade unionist, High Shearer, who succeeded Sir Alexander as president general of the BITU. In an era when political rivalry was often deeply tribal and the parties used their trade union arms as tools in the contest, Mr Shearer had the ability to draw between legitimate competition and what was in the national interest, or in the interest of workers. It was a lesson that, certainly in the realm of trade unionism, Mr Nelson learned well and exercised with acuity in the early 2000s.

With the PNP administration's fiscal difficulties and needing to contain public expenditure, including on public-sector wages, it would have been in the party's electoral interest to ferment discontent among government employees. Instead, Mr Nelson, as president of the Jamaica Confederation Trade Unions (JCTU), negotiated an agreement that led to a four-year wage freeze for public-sector employees. Whatever else was accomplished, Mr Nelson helped save jobs.




Indeed, Peter Phillips, the PNP president, in tribute, acknowledged that Mr Nelson's leadership of the JCTU was "devoid of partisan politics" and in the interest of those who he represented.

But for a brief sprint, in the 1990s, when he served as head of industrial relations for a major corporation, Mr Nelson operated squarely on the workers' side of the ledger, and up to the time of his death, starting after his official retirement, was a member of the Industrial Disputes Tribunal.

In 2015, when Mr Nelson announced his formal retirement from politics, he told this newspaper: "I have posted that I am no colour - orange (PNP) nor green (JLP). This simply means that I am a nationalist."

Whether he remained green or orange, to this newspaper, mattered nought. Dwight Nelson mostly did good by Jamaica, in the service of Jamaicans.