60 years ago, the People’s United Party (PUP) contested its first set of general elections in coalition with the then vaunted General Workers Union (GWU). It’s a little known fact, but it should be a source of pride for any modern trade unionist and required reading for any modern student. The PUP in coalition with the GWU won the 1954 and 1957 general elections. What happened thereafter with that coalition is a story that has never been told.
Younger people will recall that a little over 10 years ago in 2005, the unions took to the streets, and ironically, they almost toppled the same PUP, who had by then lost its union mooring and drifted dangerously into the stormy waters of neoliberalism. 2005 almost seems like distant memory now, but that was the awesome unions at their best.
A year later, in 2006, a union firebrand was overwhelmingly elected the first female mayor of Belize City, and in 2008, the unions inside the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) would go on to change the Said Musa-led government.
But fast forward to 2015, and the unions seem a little awkward, and it may be that we are being kind, or unkind, depending on how you want to look at it. Their veteran union stalwart, Senator Ray Davis, appeared to have gone over to the other side when he abstained from a vote on the Government’s controversial Petrocaribe Loan Bill, even as the church and business Senators were voting against it; and when the NTUCB sought to replace him they were stymied by friends of the ruling party in Civil Society. It has been a humbling if not embarrassing bout for the once powerful unions.
It has left the unions in disarray and in disunity while things are happening that could never happen if they were at full strength. Yet still, our sources say, there are rumblings inside several of the unions that suggest that beneath the surface, all may not be so well with labour relations in this country.
There are murmurs of disquiet inside the Belize Communications Workers Union, which represents the workers at Telemedia, and the workers at the Central Bank are rumoured to be having some issues with management there as well. Meanwhile, the stevedores temporarily stopped operations at the Port of Belize, and Friday the workers at First Caribbean International Bank (FCIB) staged a sickout, forcing shut several of the bank’s branches across the country.
There is also the matter of the public spat between the management of the Belize Electricity Limited and the union that represents its workers, the Belize Energy Workers Union.
As we write this editorial Monday morning, September 14, 2015, the big story is that there is another sickout at FCIB, in the backdrop of a Special House meeting scheduled for tomorrow, Tuesday. Our understanding is that Government is scheduled to pass a Vesting Bill that will supposedly finalize the approval of the sale of FCIB to Heritage Bank; this is following Central Bank’s conditional approval of the sale a few days ago. The fear of the 60 or so workers employed with FCIB is that once that sale is given legislative imprimatur, they will be left on the “massy of the world,” out of a job and with no agreed exit package with the multinational FCIB.
The workers, through their Christian Workers Union (CWU), have been appealing to the Prime Minister to hold off on the passage of the Bill because they believe such passage would drastically reduce their leverage in the matter of their negotiations with FCIB. The CWU has reason to believe that the bank’s management is playing games with them. The bank was suggesting a meeting with the union for tomorrow, Tuesday, September 15, the same day of the parliamentary meeting.
We’ve been down this road before. Just earlier this year, BSI/ASR got their way with the 60-year-old Association of the cane farmers, with the help of the ruling party. In these parts, the capitalists always win: heads they win, tails they don’t lose. That’s because PUDP always puts the interests of the capitalists ahead of labour. They are all neoliberals inside the leadership of the two mass parties.
We have said to you before that we native Belizeans are at a disadvantage once capital is exalted over labour, because the people who control the capital are the same people who enslaved and exploited us. We can’t expect them to throw us bouquets. For us natives to get a break, we must have a system wherein labour has more value and leverage than during slavery and colonialism. And that is what, arguably, self-rule and independence was to be about. But we’ve had independence for 34 years now, and what has changed really? The capitalists always win: heads they win, tails they don’t lose.
And that is why, year after year, the gap between those who have and those who don’t widens. A recent Caribbean Development Bank report confirms that the poorest 20 percent of the Belize population is consuming only 6 percent of the goods and services while the richest 20 percent consumes close to 50 percent.
That same report speculates that poverty levels have increased in Belize since the last Country Poverty Assessment five years ago declared that 41 percent of the population are poor, and another 16 percent of our people are considered indigent, the poorest of the poor. In that 2010 report, it was revealed that “the poor are mostly children and children are mostly poor.” Child poverty rates stood at 50 percent for those under 15 years and 57 percent for those in the 15-to-24 age group.
We understand that the CWU has written to the Opposition Leader, asking for the Opposition PUP’s support in the House meeting tomorrow. In a sense, we’ve come full circle, and while the PUP should welcome the opportunity to stand up on behalf of the union and the 60 families that are on the line right now, and that’s assuming their neoliberal bosses will allow them to do so, the truth is there is not much this PUP can do. There is no conscience vote in this Westminster model we practice in Belmopan. No backbenchers to speak of to keep the front bench honest. Like capital, the ruling party always has the votes.
The only thing governments understand is people in the streets, and the Opposition PUP have not been able to mount a protest, however opportune the moment may be. The only other organization, other than the unions, that can put thousands in the streets is the churches, and it would seem only UNIBAM can rouse them to act in such ways.
Our point is that it is to the other unions in the NTUCB the CWU should be appealing. It is only the unions that can save the unions when it gets like this. That is the reason all over the world the powers that be are moving to kill labour. Our enemies know from wherein the resistance shall come.
Power to the People. Remember Danny Conorquie. Fight for Belize.