BELIZE CITY, Sat. Feb. 25, 2017–A small group from the membership of the Christian Workers Union, (CWU) which represents around 10 different entities, including Port of Belize stevedores and employees of the Belize Central Bank and the Belize Social Security Board, gathered at the University of the West Indies School of Continuing Education this afternoon for the union’s Annual General Meeting and the election of a new president who will lead the union for the next three years.
The theme for the AGM was ‘CWU — the Union dah you, me and all ah we!’
The guest speaker for the AGM was Amandala publisher and Kremandala’s chairman, Evan X Hyde.
Hyde’s address was a tour de force in the history of trade unionism in Belize, beginning with the first trade union, the General Workers Union (GWU) which began in 1944, which would later be “the roots foundation upon which the People’s United Party (PUP) was founded in 1950.”
Hyde explained that when the PUP won elections in Belize in 1954 and 1957, it was in coalition with the GWU.
Hyde said he never understood the power struggle inside the PUP from which Mr. Price emerged as leader in 1956, but he noted that “the GWU faded in importance and was replaced by the Christian Workers Union., whose leadership was not directly involved in the election business of the PUP, as the GWU had been. So that when the PUP won 18 out of 18 seats in 1961 in the first general election held under a new ministerial constitution, there was no mention of the GWU or the CWU.”
Hyde, however, said that the PUP continued to respect labor unions and it was the labor unions which saved the PUP from the attacks of the UDP in the 1979 general election that made Belize’s independence possible. The UDP was formed in 1973.
Hyde also took time out to explain the dynamics between capital and labor and especially unregulated labor which can easily be exploited by rapacious capitalists in search of cheap labor and markets.
“For Belizeans to make the best political and economic decisions about our future, we first have to know exactly what is the case west and south of us. Do we want to become like Guatemala and Honduras insofar as the violent struggles between capital and labor are concerned?” asked Hyde.
Hyde explained that 48 years ago, a group of young graduates “expressed dissatisfaction with respect to the various aspects of the government of the ruling PUP, a government which no doubt considered itself revolutionary…We young graduates, however, had seen the outside world: we were impatient, and we were critical. The three most prominent of those graduates were Assad Shoman, Said Musa and myself.”
Hyde said that he led his own organization (United Black Association for Development, UBAD) from 1969 to 1973. But “at the end of 1977, I decided to become a businessman and create jobs instead of making revolution. West of Pound Yard, Kremandala is the largest roots-controlled business on the Southside. Every single one of our businesses —newspaper, radio and television, began in a severely undercapitalized situation. In fact, in the case of Amandala, Belize’s leading newspaper for the last 35 years, we started out by asking our members and supporters for donations in the summer of 1969. We raised $250 from local direct investment, can you dig it, and now here we are,” said Hyde.
Hyde said he paid his dues in the streets among the lumpenproletariat. “I don’t see, however, how you can place me and Michael Ashcroft in the same category. If he is a Belizean businessman, then I must be something else. And if I am a Belizean businessman, then Ashcroft is nothing else than an enemy of the Belizean people,” Hyde remarked.
“Belize’s economy is a capitalist economy which is heavily influenced socio-politically by various Christian denominations which control the education system. There is a 45 percent poverty rate in Belize. Half of our children never reach high school. Our illiteracy rate is at an all- time high. Our nation is on the brink of bankruptcy. Our farmers’ crops rot in the fields. Our import costs are much higher than our export revenues: this has been so for the duration of my lifetime. With huge tracts of arable land and many waterways, we Belizeans do not grow enough food crops to feed ourselves. The long and short of it is Belize is in bad shape economically, and there is no special reason to believe any change of political parties will solve any of our problems…,” Hyde stated.
“There are few reasons to be optimistic about Belize’s future. The only light of hope recently has come from a labor union –the Belize National Teachers Union…. You have heard it said before, but it must be repeated in this important forum today: there is a growing, visible gap between Belize’s super rich and the masses of the poor, a gap which existed in Guatemala and Honduras for many decades, and a gap we should have had no desire to reproduce in Belize,” Hyde pointed out.
“In the light of all this, my message to you this afternoon, February 25, 2017 is this: the Christian Workers Union should have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Belize National Teachers Union in October of 2016…. The BNTU has achieved stunning successes in the last few months, but the BNTU cannot continue to stand alone for an indefinite period. In bringing the corrupt Government of Belize under manners in several key areas, the teachers stood for all of us who are honest, hard-working Belizeans. There was an absolute need to protect us from the abuse of our arrogant, corrupt politicians…as a people, we have to accept the blame for the national value system which has produced the kind of corruption, selfishness, and greed we have seen in both of our major political parties…. The question of honesty is fundamental. As our judicial-political system stands, we punish dishonesty amongst the poor with cruelty. But, our system coddles those at the top when they embezzle our taxpayers’ funds and abuse our patrimony in different ways for their personal enrichment. No one big goes to jail in Belize….,” said Hyde.
“The societal contradiction in Belize lies in the fact that no people on planet earth proclaim how Christian they are as much as we Belizeans do, yet we adore those who are wealthy, no matter the source of that wealth, and we long with all our hearts to join the ranks of the rich. Nowhere in the New Testament do I see such thinking as being representative of Jesus Christ in any way, manner, shape, or form. I will now declare categorically: This Belize is not a Christian nation; Belizeans are worshippers of the golden calf. We are hypocrites in The Jewel. We talk a lot about Jesus, but our God is Mammon. Our politicians merely reflect what is our national ethos —me first, me second, and me third. It is not only our political leaders who are corrupt: It is the whole nation of Belize which is corrupt. We proclaim our Christianity only as a front: we Belizeans are liars, we are thieves, and now our children have become murderers. This is real.” said Hyde.
“I had a purpose integral to my message in inviting two elders here as our guests. Captain Nicholas Sanchez and Sydney Lightburn left here in the early 1950s and early 1960s, respectively, and they both were unionized workers in Canada for decades. One of the negative things that happened to us in Belize was that we lost the guidance and wisdom of our older generations when our workers migrated. Young people had to grow up on their own, and they have made many mistakes. Things have happened in Belize which I do not believe can be reversed. Many of those things have happened right before our eyes. We have Belizeans like Captain Sanchez and Stretch Lightburn, who did not see these things happen, but they return home often, and they have seen the effects of the various phenomena. I believe that these two men, who have spent most of their adult lives in a foreign country, love Belize still: they love Belize as much as you and I,” Hyde went on to say.
“In closing then, I want to look outside our borders to our Belizeans abroad. Fighting for our sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the economic development of our country, we need all the help we can get. We will need to integrate our diaspora Belizeans back into our domestic consciousness. There is much they have to offer, and in many cases, it is not much they seek or require for themselves. For me, a key reality is that our returned and returning Belizeans bring love: a love for this country, a love for our struggle, and a love for us as a people.” Hyde said.
He further explained, “When we began losing these Belizeans five and six decades ago, we began losing what we could not replace. Many strangers have come from abroad, in the interim, and we have welcomed them and given them love. Now the time has come for us to welcome back our own, our roots own.
“When I returned from America in 1968, I believe that some things in Belize had to change. In 2017, we can see that there are things which have changed for the worse. I could not come here and tell you pretty stories. There is blood in our streets. Our children are locked up in jail. Our mothers grieve.
“You, the working salt of the Belizean earth, you, the unionized workers of the Christian Workers Union, represent struggle in Belize. Even when you feel you are weak, you must remember that you are what we have left. The strength of any nation lies in the skill and productivity of its workers.”
“I give respect on this day, the day of your annual general meeting and elections. These are dark days in our struggle as a people, but your efforts as unionized Belizeans workers represent the backbone of our cause. Before you there was slavery, there was peonage, there was non-unionized labor. Ahead of you, in Belize we pray for in our future, there lies real nationhood, true brotherhood and sisterhood, and all the prosperity we all deserve. We need each other. We must love one another.
“Power to the People,” Hyde said in his concluding remarks.
Kremandala chairman Evan X Hyde received a standing ovation at the end of his message to the CWU members.
The business part of the meeting, however, took a chaotic turn, until uniformed police arrived.
The majority of the members present at the meeting, where outgoing president Audrey Matura-Shepherd delivered her final report, were stevedores, employed at the Belize Port Limited, who continue to work without a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
Before the balloting got under way, a majority of the union’s members had already voted by proxy. The stevedore and activist Raymond Rivers was observed outside shouting, “We wan teck back we union today.”
Rivers’ remarks were directed at president Matura-Shepherd, who was inside reading her report. Apart from Rivers, some stevedores were outside expressing skepticism about the financial management of their union.
Meanwhile inside, Matura-Shepherd was addressing the members. She said that they should congratulate themselves, because prior to this period, for 10 years the union did not have an AGM. Matura-Shepherd also told the members that the union has been able to pay all of its bills, including its rent, and utility bills.
“It’s critical and important that we have been able to join the NTUCB again. Remember we were kicked out of NTUCB,” Matura-Shepherd said. “Imagine for 10 years we couldn’t pay our dues and then they kicked us out.”
Congratulations Dale Trujeque CWU's new president elected at today's AGM held at UWI auditorium. Thanks also to Evan X…
As the tension grew outside of the meeting, eventually, someone called for the police, whose presence was enough to cool things off outside. The tension, and hurling of insults and accusation directed at Matura-Shepherd, resumed once Rivers went back inside, where she was still speaking. He was not alone, however, as many stevedores joined their voices to his.
At one point, it was doubtful if the balloting would proceed to elect the new president, but calm was restored when the veteran trade unionist Jackie Willoughby, the interim acting president of the Belize National Trade Union Congress, stepped up to the podium and began assisting the outgoing CWU president Matura-Shepherd.
For the post of president, many of the stevedores were rooting for the community activist Moses Sulph.
When it was time for the floor to nominate the candidates for president, Sulph could not be nominated, because his name would have had to be submitted in advance. It was not, so he was barred from taking part in the elections.
Only two candidates were nominated and seconded, Wilmore Staine and Dale Trujeque.
After the ballots were counted, Trujeque came out on top with 175 votes, most of which were done by proxy, while Staine finished with a total of 63 votes.
The CWU members at the AGM also voted on a resolution to amend their constitution. Suggestions for amendment will be made within the next month and the process should be completed in the next six months.
Amandala asked Willoughby whether the government’s move to pass a law declaring the stevedores as an essential service should have been challenged in court. Willoughby said that governments like to hide behind legislation. The stevedores are not an essential service and the legislation can be challenged at the tripartite level, from business, labor and government, she said.