Mon | Jul 23, 2018

Orville Taylor | Labourites forgetting labour rights?

Published:Sunday | March 18, 2018 | 12:00 AM

History is an amazing teacher and, like the current educators, will strike when ignored or disrespected. However, sometimes unwilling and hard-eared students either skulk away from school or are simply just too stubborn to learn the lessons.

Founder of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), Alexander Bustamante, upon whose shoulders the present generation of Labourites stand, inaugurated the party in 1943 just after he was released from two years detention. Perhaps this present generation doesn't know, but it was not the leadership of the 1938 disturbances that makes him truly heroic. In fact, as uncomfortable as the truth might be, he was not the main player in the uprising, having joined it long after the real labour leaders, A.G.S. Coombs and St William Grant, initiated it. Never mind the hero's chest baring against the police. Even today, the police are very apprehensive when confronting brown or deputy white men. Busta was absolutely sure that no policeman in a constabulary where only officers were white would touch him.

Bustamante's real heroism came afterwards, when, like the present teachers, police and other public-sector groups, he refused to back down and kept speaking out against injustice. What the current Labourites need to understand is that the labour in the middle of their party's name is not just some insignificant terminology.

 

ORIGINAL WORKERS' PARTY

 

The JLP was the original workers' party, the political hope of the working classes. It was Busta's JLP that gave the Jamaican worker the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) in 1965-66, although, unfortunately, not much more. Interestingly, the People's National Party's (PNP) Norman Manley adamantly opposed this.

Long before collective bargaining was enshrined in our national statutes, Busta, by policy fiat, gave the unrestricted right to trade unions representing public-sector workers to bargain for their members. This meant that even if a union has a small pocket of post office workers in urban postal agencies, it would be invited to the table and treated with respect.

For The Chief, the rights of freedom of association and to collective bargaining were the pillars of his support. Soon after Independence, Section 13 in the Constitution guaranteed freedom of association. Section 23 enshrined the right of freedom of association and, in particular, the right to belong to and participate in the activities of trade unions.

The now-repealed section read, "Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of peaceful assembly and association, that is to say, his right peacefully to assemble freely with others and in particular to form or to belong to trade unions or other associations for the protection of his interests."

Few noticed, but I did, that in 2011, a government that included trade unionists Rudyard Spencer and Pearnel Charles Sr allowed for the new Charter of Rights to exclude the explicit Section 23 and now has a mere half-line reference to freedom of association.

It must not be forgotten that the decade of the 1960s brought 'prosperity', as measured by economic growth. Nonetheless, hardly any of this wealth trickled down to the masses, the very working class inspired by a nominally labour-oriented government. Moreover, after winning the 1967 election, rather than hunkering down and cementing Bustamante's legacy, it became more of a capitalist-class party and in 1968 tried to suppress the worker and black activists who expressed the very core sentiments of what brought the JLP to power in the first place.

When the party ceased being that in the late 1960s, it was chased into Opposition in the 1972 general election. However, that was not before trade unionist and 'father' of the now enfant terrible Spencer had led his swansong by putting before Parliament a Termination of Employment and an Industrial Relations Bill.

These two statutes, for which the PNP's Michael Manley got credit in 1974 and 1975, are the linchpins of the system of industrial relations that fed, schooled and brought Spencer to being an electable politician. Spencer and Charles Sr of all those in Parliament owe a lifetime debt of respect to the trade unions and working class of this country and must do nothing to trample on the legacy of the original Chief.

Our Labour Relations and Industrial Disputes Act has a three-tiered system of dispute resolution under Section 6 and a number of other guiding sections. Moreover, the Labour Relations Code of 1976 gives guidelines that are accessible to the visually impaired but obviously not to those who lack vision.

 

'F' FOR GOV'T

 

For this Government to have gone ahead and paid a non-contractual 'final offer' to increase salary before negotiations with the union have been concluded is unprecedented, disingenuous disrespectful, pure mockery and crockery, and they get an F for this action.

At this juncture,the ability to pay, or who needs the increase more, is not the main issue. In fact, since 1977, successive governments have been under some sort of wage restraint with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) breathing an anti-worker menu down their backs. These have ranged from quantitative wage guidelines to retrenchment. We have seen memoranda of understanding with implicit threats of trimming fat from central and local government.

Note, however, that there had never been an issue of overstaffing among teachers, police officers, doctors and nurses. Thus, it is pleasant that the IMF has finally admitted that key public-sector workers must be better paid and hinted that it seems to be understanding the 'decent work' research from the ILO and others.

By the way, I hope Government is thinking of trimming its cadre of advisers who seem bent on guiding it to an election loss.

- Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of Sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets'. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.