Sun | Aug 14, 2022

Alfred Dawes | Lightning strikes all over

Published:Sunday | May 15, 2022 | 12:09 AM

If it is one thing I learned during my stint as the head of a trade union, it is that militancy spreads like a contagion. Indeed, we are seeing it spread now beyond the usual suspects that historically have caused governments the most concern. If...

If it is one thing I learned during my stint as the head of a trade union, it is that militancy spreads like a contagion. Indeed, we are seeing it spread now beyond the usual suspects that historically have caused governments the most concern. If not handled with humility and honesty, the current unrest in the public sector can spread like wildfire. We, as a nation just coming out of a pandemic and navigating the international fallout of a geopolitical crisis, simply cannot afford to spiral out of control. If the disruptions cause by the striking National Water Commission workers and air traffic controllers are anything to go by, we should take sleep mark death.

Curiously, the debate has been centred mostly around if essential workers should strike, as opposed to why are they so mad, that they are tossing all concern for legal repercussions to the wind to press their demands. The workers are upset. They have all right to be. They have been called upon time and time again to tighten their belts and sacrifice for the greater good of the country. Yet when times are good, they do not reap the rewards of their sacrifices.

In 2019 when the world economy was booming and Jamaicans saw their stock market surging to record heights, I penned an article in this paper lamenting the unfairness of the treatment of civil servants. “The truth is that it is the sacrifice of the government worker that has led to the economic stability that in turn has paved the way for tremendous wealth for those in the private sector. It is the sacrifice of the middle class that has ironically led to a widening of the gulf between rich and poor.” I went on to prophetically conclude, “Eventually, Jamaica will experience a downturn in the economy. When that happens and government revenues fall, we can guess who will be again called upon to make the sacrifice to ensure that the economy recovers. And for that I want to say thank you in advance to the real MVPs of our economy – the government workers.”

I need to start a church! Or is it that we continue to ignore what patterns in plain sight point us towards the inevitable? Remuneration packages form a major expense in annual budgets. With inflation and devaluation constant threats, public sector workers demand more during every negotiation cycle. They are, however, the easiest to sell the ideas of austerity and wage freezes. The wastage, corruption and inefficiencies that cause us to spend billions annually are never addressed in a fulsome way.

UNSETTLED ISSUES

Ironically, it was the pushing through of reforms that would make public sector compensation more straightforward, that has led to the winter of discontent freezing the water in our taps. Outstanding issues concerning reclassification and a myriad of unsettled issues have suddenly come to the forefront of the conversation. Were the unions consulted? Was this a heavy-handed approach by the Government? Each side has their version of events. What is clear, though, is that it left many employees militant.

Those who have not taken industrial action are planning or seething as they mull over their options. For essential workers to strike is our local equivalent of crossing the Rubicon. The gloves are off. The militant wings ever present in the mass meetings have drowned out the conservative voices of reason. The law is no longer seen as a guide that makes our society liveable. A social contract, gentleman’s agreement, and blood oath to stay on the job to serve the interest of the country no matter what their grievances are, has been broken. When that happens, it is a declaration of open strike season for other non-essential and essential workers to act. Are they justified in their civil disobedience? Only time will tell.

When I was called upon to call a strike for junior doctors, I was able to convince the militant faction that such an action should be of an absolutely last resort as it is the people who would suffer. Surprisingly, a media house conducted a poll and given the nature of our grievances, we enjoyed unprecedented support for such a move. Still, we chose the asymmetric engagement of the government rather than the tried and tested method of sick-outs. This was only possible because of the acquiescence of the militant wings in the organisation. These days there are militant wings within militant wings who believe the wings have become too slow to act.

Inflation is high. Food is expensive. Petrol prices, that caused the country to burn just two decades ago, climb to new heights weekly. The economic recovery may be hindered by the war in Europe and the zero COVID-19 policy of China. The laws have been disproportionately applied in so many instances that respect for them has plummeted. There is very little room for hardship these days. As the Bank of Jamaica raises rates to combat inflation, the burden of debt servicing increases, leaving less in the budget for social safety nets and stimulus spending. The Government that has done fairly well in combating the pandemic threat now finds itself having to confront a new crisis that it inadvertently helped to create.

We cannot afford more shutdowns. Militancy among public sector employees is at its highest level in years. The authorities need to recognise this and with cap in hand meet with the unions to address outstanding concerns before embarking on this expensive public sector reform. Otherwise, we are in serious trouble.

- Dr Alfred Dawes is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, CEO of Windsor Wellness Centre. Follow him on Twitter @dr_aldawes. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and adawes@ilapmedical.com.