Sat | Aug 17, 2019

Martin Henry | Labour and politics slaves to each other

Published:Sunday | May 27, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry
Adrian Miller unloads stacks of sugar cane from his donkey in the hills of Duxxes, St Catherine. The sugar industry has been hobbled by lack of mechanisation and pressure to maintain low-skill jobs for political appeasement, writes Martin Henry. FILE

"Four dead! Nine in hospital! Eighty-nine in jail! Police forced to shoot down rioters in Westmoreland. Dollar-a-day demand ends in death!' the headline on the front page of The Daily Gleaner of May 3, 1938, screamed. In Kingston, eight people were killed, more than 170 wounded, and over 700 arrested before some measure of order was restored in May 1938.

"The riots," historian P.M. Sherlock tells us in West Indian Nations: A New History, "did not take place because the labouring folk wanted self-government, but because they wanted better living conditions and higher wages. ... Every West Indian country was a powder keg."

It's 80 years on. And the Government led the way in commemorating the 80th anniversary of these labour, justice, and freedom struggles during Workers' Week, May 14 to 23.

Ironically, it was in that very week that the Jamaica Teachers' Association finally signed a wage agreement with the Government after a long and acrimonious stand-off. Meanwhile, The Gleaner front page was shouting even more loudly, 'Police fed up'. "No more!" warned the outgoing chairman of the Jamaica Police Federation, Sgt Cecil McCalla, addressing "militant" members of the federation.

He noted that the police had been seeking a 40-hour workweek from the days when trade unionist Hugh Shearer was prime minister in the early 1970s, and it was not until 2008 that the Government agreed to that principle. But while the 40-hour workweek was in place, officers were often forced to work long hours beyond that without proper compensation. Which, post-militant meeting, they will continue to do.

The Police Federation chief questioned whether overtime without pay meant that the Government was breaking the law by violating aspects of International Labour Organization legislation. That's not a question. Of course, the Government is breaking the law and violating international labour agreements.

Workers, unionised and otherwise, continue to have substantial challenges with Government as employer.

The contributions of the labour movement to the progress of Jamaica is very much a mixed bag. But at this time of celebration, commemoration, and hero-making, no one wants to talk about the dark side of the labour movement. Which is why I am doing it.




It is true that the labour struggles gave birth to the trade union movement and to the two dominant political parties that have governed Jamaica, in various fashion, since 1944. But the intertwining of the trade unions and political parties has hurt both sides. Labour has been constrained in many of its legitimate aspirations by political loyalty. And politics has been constrained in public policy design and execution by being beholden to reactionary, status quo-defending trade unionism.

Government's relationship to the sugar industry, an industry which was central to the 1938 labour uprisings, is an important case in point. To preserve mass labour engagement at the lowest manual level of the machete-wielding cane cutter, successive governments, from the time of Bustamante in the 1940s, have refused to mechanise and modernise sugar production at field level. Or to leave the industry to economic forces to determine its fate. Government has repeatedly bailed out uneconomic sugar 'for the last time'. And we are now stuck with a dinosaur sugar industry with no guaranteed market to absorb our higher-priced, small-volume product after the cancellation of EU-preferential access.

While labour is not the only factor in productivity, the trade unions cannot, with a clear conscience and with any consideration for honesty, be exempt from responsibility for contributing to Jamaica's stagnant or declining levels of productivity over many years running.

To placate poorly paid labour, particularly in the labour-mop public service, Government has progressively offered a complicated package of non-salary benefits which cannot now be afforded under prevailing economic constraints and which cannot be relinquished without massive labour fights and unaffordable redundancy payments where retrenchment may be necessary.

The trade unions, strongly driven by political accommodation, have fooled themselves and their membership into accepting the principle of maximum employment at minimum pay - with matching minimum output - while ignoring the fact of economics that a market-driven price allocation of labour redounds to workers' interests, employers' interests, and the general improvement of the productivity of an economy.

At a certain critical point in Jamaica's labour and political history, perhaps during the second phase of the two-term Manley administration, 1976-1981, workers might have been better served by a relaxation of rigid trade unionism and a more open embrace of free price allocation of labour in the labour market. By that time, labour laws protecting workers' rights had become wide, deep, and strong, making workers, in principle if not in practice, less dependent on collective bargaining and the protective muscle of trade unions.

But that time was precisely the Golden Age of trade unionism and the peak of market restrictions. There has never been a more worker-oriented, worker-defending government in the history of Jamaica, simultaneously with the highest levels of unemployment, the greatest and fastest deterioration of workers' spending power from inflation and devaluation, and the lowest levels of salary increases except for the present time.




But one of the greatest negative legacy contributions of the trade unions to our cultural identity is their contribution to tribalism and violence. The story is largely forgotten, or sanitised, in our hero-making efforts. Labour Day, May 23, is now a tame affair with more resting and socialising than working. On the heels of his 1972 election victory in February of that year, Michael Manley converted Labour Day from Trade Unions Day to a day of patriotic labour on civic projects. For years following, hundreds of thousands across the country rallied to the new vision across all divides, including the political divide.

But prior to that, Labour Day was the day when the trade unions marched, flexed muscles, and battled each other in the streets.

Historians like Colin Palmer in Freedom's Children - The 1938 Labor Rebellion and the Birth of Modern Jamaica, and Obika Gray in Demeaned but Empowered - The Social Power of the Urban Poor in Jamaica, and others, document the "battle for the streets of Kingston" by JLP-BITU forces and PNP-TUC forces. And there is substantial living memory, although squashed by hero-making mythology.

Gray writes: "Political deprivation, or advantage on the basis of party and union affiliation, had emerged as bases for the assumption of social identity. To be a JLP-BITU or a PNP-TUC partisan in these early years had taken on powerful social connotations and cultural meaning, and the communities being formed by such identifications began to cling to these identities, and to grasp their political consequences."

The extent to which this situation has set back Jamaica, and the role of the trade unions in creating it, is an important part of the story as we commemorate the labour upheavals of 1938 and the benefits to national development that sprang from them. It's a more complex story than simply heroes producing progress.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and