April 17, 2017–This is a moment in time in Belize when Labor is where the power is. I don’t mean merely that the unions (at least one) can be depended upon to successfully take on government on workers’ rights, economic issues, corruption or issues of good governance. I mean that this moment is bursting with potential for radical political change in Belize, an opportunity that was allowed to slip by in 2005 when the Belize National Teachers Union went on strike, joining other organizations in a campaign against the then PUP government. If there ever were a moment for clear, rational thinking, for not being satisfied with taking to the streets every time a wayward government needs to be put in check, for bringing an end to the UDP-PUP merry-go-round, this is it.
As we all know, 2016’s two-week long strike went far beyond the 2005 economic and tax issues. I quote Michael Finnegan, Area Representative, Mesopotamia, in an interview with a reporter: “Dehn wahn Integrity Commission. God, we give dehn Integrity Commission. Yoh want the Public Accounts Committee, you have gotten the Public Accounts Committee. Yoh want the thirteenth senator, we bend ova back, we bend ova back and yoh get the thirteenth senator. Yo wahn we sign the UN Convention against Corruption. Lawd wih di gih yo dat too. Yoh wahn di Occupation and Safety Health Bill; di government is prepared to table that in the National Assembly in its original form. Everything that you have asked for. Everything that you have asked for with these eight points, we are prepared to give to you. We have set dates, the Prime Minister set dates for them. Weh else dehn wahn? What else do they want from the Prime Minister? Ah cyant tell yoh een ya weh else dehn wahn, Jules.”
Weh dehn wahn, da denh country back, Mr. Finnegan. Obviously the UDP is not inclined to give that and, despite popular support from parents and students and the public in general, union-wise the B.N.T.U stood alone. However, that seems to be far from the end. Last month newly elected leader of the umbrella National Trade Union Congress of Belize, Floyd Neal, was quoted in Channel 5’s online news as follows: “The narrative out there, the image most Belizean workers have of T.U.C., is of a toothless tiger – we need to change that; we need to change that. So my own thinking is that we need to get the word out that the days of T.U.C. being a toothless tiger are behind us; and we need to do things, we need to take steps, we need to forge partnerships which will let the powers-that-be recognize that it’s a new day. But again, we need to have that conversation; we need to have that discussion at the executive meeting table, along with the G.C. – how do we change the narrative, how do we change the image T.U.C. currently has.”
And: “There will be differences but we’re all adults at T.U.C., we’re all committed to try to get a better deal for Belizean workers. We’re committed; we’re passionate about this union movement. So there is sufficient space, even though we might have our differences, to stay focused on what needs to be the mission. So I have no doubt that once we meet at the table, we will be able to decide how do we change the narrative, how do we change the image of T.U.C. out there among the Belizean workers – that will happen, I don’t have any fear about that. We don’t have an option but to make it happen, really.”
While those sentiments seem to be primarily about member welfare and generally strengthening partnerships within the NTUCB, I see it as a starting point which, with B.N.T.U. influence, could set the stage for the other unions countrywide to get their heads out of the sand and think about the country as a whole. What if the “mission” were formulated around both the recognition that the working class does the heavy lifting of building and sustaining the nation of Belize and the recognition of the ownership of working people to the wealth of their nation? What if that “new day” were to bring with it the assurance of a country that affirms the dignity of work and that a job is a human right for every man and woman; a country where the hungry are fed, the homeless are housed, the sick treated and the people are educated? What if the narrative were “the working class makes the country run, but has little say in running the country”? What if all the unions would agree that the end goal is true governance by the people for the people?
Belizeans – unions, activists, civic organizations – the work can now move on from “I want my country back” to “I’m taking my country back”. This is a moment to accept the realities, to change the trajectory which, for thirty-six years, has been lacking in the promise for a better Belize where it really counts – the quality of life of the masses. I’ve learned through this newspaper that there was once a socialist element in early PUP administrations. I don’t know how aware Belizeans were of that, how they responded, or if Belize is even ready to hear this: this is a moment that is ripe for the emergence of a socialist democratic party, a Labor Party, if you will. With union leadership as exemplified by the B.N.T.U., and with support from other organizations, such a party, Belize, will be a real choice because you can be confident your interests will be represented. No more being caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the choices of the last three plus decades; no more sacrifices that only ensure the financial success of career politicians and the already well-to-do, leaving too many in the dust.
It occurs to me that the possibilities of the power of this moment have so scared the UDP leadership that in blind desperation they hatched the proposed million-dollar teacher payoff. Add that desperation to Belize’s political stew and it is a foregone conclusion that forging this new road forward will be extremely difficult. The governing administration will obstruct with all the resources, might and powers at its disposal and, as historically demonstrated, the Opposition will maneuver to ride the waves of dissatisfaction for the sole purpose of reclaiming power for business as usual.
Notwithstanding, the politicians, whatever the party color, will still need the votes of the working and the unemployed to win elections. It could indeed be a new day in Belize if Belize really wants it!