Sun | Jun 26, 2022

Orville Taylor | Disgruntled labour – lessons from history

Published:Sunday | May 22, 2022 | 12:08 AM

It is 1969, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), an institution built on the back of the workers’ movement, was in its seventh year of being in charge of the country. The Ethiopians, a grassroots Jamaican musical group, summed it up in their classic,...

It is 1969, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), an institution built on the back of the workers’ movement, was in its seventh year of being in charge of the country. The Ethiopians, a grassroots Jamaican musical group, summed it up in their classic, Everything Crash. “Look deh now, everything crash! … Firemen strike! Watermen strike! Telephone company too! Down to the policemen too! What gone bad a-morning, Can’t come good a-evening, whoi!”

There was disgruntlement among the working class on the whole and more specifically within the public sector. The JLP was sitting on a comfortable and real majority based on the 82 per cent of the electorate that turned out. Of the 53 available seats in the House of Representatives, it had won 33 just two years earlier. But the groundswell had shifted away from the party founded by trade unionist Alexander Bustamante. Starting from the 1963 Coral Gardens’ incident, where Rastafarians and police officers were killed by each other, the disaffection was festering. True, the government had introduced a National Insurance Scheme (NIS) in 1966, but the benefits to the average working person were not apparent. Moreover, average male life expectancy of 62 years made payouts inaccessible to most Jamaican workers, who literally died waiting for the pittance.

As it is now, post-retirement benefits were minuscule. Furthermore, for some insidious reason, a large mass of public sector workers were categorised as ‘non-pensionable’. These included special constables and other workers on the ‘hate line’. Despite the introduction of the Industrial Relations Bill and the Termination of Employment Bill in 1971, the JLP had squandered its goodwill and a slightly pigmented Michael Manley, leading the People’s National Party (PNP), grabbed the working class with both hands, took the catch and won the election in February 1972. It was a popular election with 78 per cent of the enumerated actually voting.

As the PNP celebrated victory; 37 of the 53 available seats, current Prime Minister Andrew Holness was being incubated in the first trimester of his gestation and Finance Minister Nigel Clarke was being breastfed. Any mess or spill the latter created then would have been cleaned up by their mothers.

FOOLISHLY UNCONTESTED

Skip forward to 1985, two years after a national (s)election, foolishly uncontested by the PNP, the Ethiopians’ song was even more relevant. Edward Seaga’s JLP had been returned to power by a minority, 29 per cent of the electorate. In June, labour unrest boiled over by the perceived arrogance of the ‘Prime Minister of Finance’, precipitating a national strike. Trust me, it was bad, and even I, as a conciliator/mediator at the Ministry of Labour, could not make it more than two kilometres from my house.

Industrial action was carried out among the workers in the public sector and even some private entities as well. Ultimately, the back of the strike was broken and some union officers lost face, workers lost their jobs, and this included firemen who were severely punished. Yet, the workers had the last laugh, because consistent with the historical pattern, the February 1989 election saw an ousting of the government that was seen as anti-labour, and especially public servants.

In my text, Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets: A Century of Betrayal of the Jamaican Working Class, the relationship between incumbent parties, felt to be anti-worker and losses in the following general election, is well chronicled and elucidated. It’s not history; it’s sociology. By the way, the PNP’s losses in 2007 and 2016 also follow the trend. Jamaican workers, since 1865’s Morant Bay rebellion, always rise up and make changes, when governments’ oppression crosses the line.

This is 2022, air traffic controllers have a long-standing dispute which is not a fly-by-night concern. Someone in his wisdom, or lack thereof, has initiated disciplinary proceedings against firemen, who had sought to pursue their grievances. This is exactly the case in 1985.

MINORITY GOVERNMENT

Note also that despite its 49:14 landslide in 2020, only 37 per cent of registered voters went to the polls. Thus, in real terms, this is a minority government, which must be extremely careful in ignoring the past.

A week ago, I sat in the House of Babylon and the servants and vassals are angry and restive. Research and practice regarding ‘decent work’ correlated to high productivity, low attrition, high morale, high employee engagement, low social conflict and low crime and violence is irrefutable. Our democracy, with two labour parties in Parliament, is built on the collective bargaining process and anchored on consultation and communication. Decent work “delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organise and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men”. Anything less than that is going to be disastrous for the police, nation and eventually the government.

It is uncertain if it is Nebuchadnezzar or Belshazzar, but having looked at the invisible handwriting on the wall and some of what is emerging, I am reading ‘mene mene tekel upharsin’. The Ethiopians said in ‘69, coincidentally a troubling section of the Constabulary Force Act, “Every day carry bucket to the well, One day the bottom must drop out.”

In a period when 84 per cent of Jamaicans do not trust politicians and 75 per cent think elected officials cannot be taken at their word, the need for honest and open dialogue is critical.

- Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of Sociology at The University of the West Indies, a radio talk-show host, and author of ‘Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets’. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.