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Orville Taylor: Heroes Day - But where is the next champion of the working class?

Published:Sunday | October 18, 2015 | 12:00 AMOrville Taylor, Contributor
Clive Dobson
Hopeton Caven
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Heroes' Day: But where is the next champion of the working class?

In the space of a week, we have lost two lions in the trade union movement. Literally, members of a dying breed of unflappable leaders, Clive Dobson, former president of the National Workers' Union (NWU) and Hopeton Caven, head of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), were part of that next tier of leadership, which came just behind Michael Manley and Hugh Lawson Shearer.

These were men, who supported trade union education, refused to back down even when it was clear that big money was supporting the corporations and even the government. Both had been government senators under the People's National Party (PNP) and during the 1960s to the 1990s, they were the workers' heroes.

It was an era when trade union leaders spoke and employers and government listened; well, most of the time at least. These men understood the labour legislation and the gaps, therein, and fought for legislative changes. When in the Senate, one did not feel that they put party above the interest of the working class that brought them to prominence. In my blessed encounters with them over the 30-plus years, I got a sense that they understood the relationship between social justice, and in particular, social justice for the poor and working class on the one hand, and violence and social upheavals on the other.

Tomorrow is Heroes' Day and just a week after the anniversary of the Morant Bay War, I'm still waiting for the fulfilment of the promises made. Morant Bay was about the majority of the poor and working class feeling little hope and a sort of apathy by the elected leadership. Nonetheless, let us search our history and learn about our heroes.

Queen Nanny, never mind the myths and legends of her catching bullets with her butt cheeks; her real heroism lies in the fearless leadership she gave to her Maroons as she made the British realise that, as we are 300 years later, no push over.

The treaty, which the British offered after quaking in their boots under the constant attacks during the Maroon Wars of the 1700s, was signed in 1739 but importantly, Nanny was a heroic dissenting voice. Twenty-one years later, Chief Tacky, uncomfortable with the privileges he got as a black overseer, but still a slave, led a major revolt in which he took control of several plantations, and looked to be on the verge of success, until he was betrayed and killed by another descendant of Africans living here. Tacky was interested not only in freeing his kinfolk, but more importantly, in creating the first state run by black people, in the Americas.

Even today, there is the fear of admitting that a country with 92 per cent black, the same percentage of whites in England, is a black country, although none has any difficulty calling Israel, with 70 per cent of the population being Jews, a Jewish state.

Tacky's was a model the people in St Domingue (Haiti) were to eventually emulate 30 years later, with more success. Few know that Dutty Boukman (called Boukman Doti in Haiti) was a Jamaican who actually initiated the first acts of resistance and started the war. The bar set by Tacky and Boukman was one that Sam Sharpe had to measure up to in 1830. Tacky and Boukman should be on our heroes list.

I have no problem with Sharpe being a national hero, but I still do not see what was different about his own rebellion and that of Tacky earlier. It was unsuccessful in that he was caught and hanged, a calculated act of altruistic suicide, having remarked, "I would rather die on yonder gallows, than to live in slavery."

The lesson taught by our heroes is that the breed of Africans brought to this island is among the most rebellious set of persons enslaved in this hemisphere. Indeed, we have had the most slave rebellions per capita since the 1600s. The fierce spirit of the Jamaican Africans is still as it was, and is erupting without our leaders recognising it.

In the post emancipation period, the Morant Bay war of 1865 was a flashpoint. It was a simple lesson in social marginalisation. If you make the black majority feel that they do not have access to social justice, then there shall be war.

Last week, the heroic status of Paul Bogle and George William Gordon was outlined and the impact and legacy of 1865 discussed. So I will not reprise it here. What is important is that, after 1865, hardly any laws were passed for the overall uplift of the working poor for several decades.

Yet, hardly anyone understands that there have been activists, pushing for social justice for Jamaican workers. Alexander Bain Alves, for example, led protests in 1919 for the legalisation of trade unions. These issues were clearly outlined in the work of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, in his manifest of 1929. Apart from the well-known work on black activism, he advocated the working classes electing their own political leaders and laws against vote buying and coercion. Almost a hundred years ago, Garvey understood the dangers of politicians and their moneyed cronies subverting the democratic process.

As the 1930s came to a boil, Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante came to the forefront, although they were not active trade unionists when the strikes and riots began in 1938. Despite universal adult suffrage in 1944 and alternating stints by the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the PNP since then, we still have a country where large groups of legitimate workers are being employed under disguise contracts. Moreover, after 71 years of democracy, we still don't know how our elections are being financed and which patron has a vested interest in certain laws being passed or not enacted.

Yet, as I have indicated in several columns over the past decade, there is still a relationship between the present labour laws and the level of crime; and the trade unionists who have their political leaders' ears are not saying it.

Let's hope that another hero steps out.

- Dr Orville Taylor, senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host, is the 2013-14 winner of the Morris Cargill Award for Opinion Journalism. His just-published book, 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets', is now available at the UWI Bookshop. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.