Last week the United Democratic Party (UDP) Government of Belize struck a devastating blow against the waterfront workers when they signed a statutory instrument which now includes the waterfront amongst what are called “essential services.” This means that the power of the waterfront workers to take industrial action against their employers, the Port of Belize, is now severely restricted.
The journalists have to do research so that the Belizean people can find out exactly what “essential services” are, and also when and why the law was introduced. I know that the police and the public hospital were declared “essential services” decades ago, and I believe this law was signed in order to prevent any workers’ union from being able to cripple the elected government. I believe it was because of some socio-political emergency, such as the Heads of Agreement in 1981, that the ruling politicians took measures to control the unions and protect their administration.
From the political standpoint, the timing of the Barrow government was exquisite, as they signed the statutory instrument when Belizeans had entered their Christmas frenzy. Nobody paid any attention. Last week’s legislation will likely pass beneath the media radar, or, at least, it will not be examined as meticulously as it would normally have been.
What caught my attention was how quickly and how enthusiastically the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry moved to congratulate the Government for the new statutory instrument. And I will tell you why this caught my attention later in this column.
Week before last, the waterfront workers had struck dramatically at the Port of Belize. It had been what is called a “wildcat”strike, because it was not called by the union to which waterfront workers belong – the Christian Workers Union (CWU). In addition, it appeared to me that it was one small, specific group of workers who had initiated the work stoppage, and others followed.
The strike action at the waterfront almost immediately hit the news because a ship which was in port was diverted elsewhere by its owners and agents, and that ship’s cargo included turkey and ham for Belizeans’ Christmas celebrations. Because of that turkey and ham cargo, and the doubt then raised about the sufficiency of the supply of these products for the Pascua, the workers did not receive the community support they would normally get in the population center. Christmas is the biggest thing on Belizeans’ calendar. Everybody knows that.
Inside the ranks of the merchant importers of Belize, concern quickly became worry, then anger, and perhaps even panic. The waterfront workers had struck a nerve center, but they went back to work after three days of strike as if nothing had happened. We know that the main issue was retroactive pension negotiations, and what the leadership of the CWU described as dishonesty, or perfidy, on the part of management, but there was apparently no serious, long term strategy on the part of the workers. They had rung clanging alarm bells, because of the critical timing of the strike, but they had not achieved anything substantial, and they had created an opening through which the Government of Belize could attack and injure them, reducing their future bargaining power substantially.
For someone who was active in street politics for years, I know relatively little about unions. One reason for this is that the bulk of our UBAD organization’s support four and a half decades ago came from unemployed youth, those whom scholars refer to as the “lumpenproletariat.” The ruling People’s United Party (PUP) essentially controlled the unions during the time of UBAD (1969-73).
Now, why did the Chamber’s move grab my attention? When the UDP was established in 1973, there were two powerful merchant houses which were big time supporters. These were Santiago Castillo, Ltd., and the Ismael Gomez Company. Mr. Castillo had been supporting Philip Goldson’s National Independence Party (NIP) from the 1960s, but Melin Gomez was a new kid on the political block, so to speak. He was open and loud with his support of the Dean Lindo-led UDP, whereas Mr. Castillo, the more powerful and wealthy businessman, was more subdued in his politics. The upshot of this was that when the UDP lost the general election many people expected them to win in 1979, Mr. Castillo easily survived the setback, but Melin’s business began a downward spiral which led to its demise before the UDP managed to win national power in 1984.
The bulk of Belize City’s waterfront workers come from the Southside of the city, which has been the UDP’s political stronghold from 1984. The rise of the UDP to dominance of the Southside coincided with the physical and political decline of PUP superstar, C. L. B. Rogers, who lost the Mesopotamia seat in 1979 to the UDP’s Curl Thompson. Rogers had won the seat in the 1961, 1965, 1969, and 1974 general elections. Mr. Rogers was Deputy Premier from the late 1960s and became Deputy Prime Minister after independence in 1981. He was demoted from Cabinet in January of 1984 after the UDP won a landslide Belize City Council victory in December of 1983.
The UDP’s move last week to hamstring the waterfront workers comes as no surprise to anyone who knows the origins and the dominant philosophy of the party. It may be that the UDP’s move against the waterfront exposes an inability of Hon. Michael Finnegan to protect his base at the Cabinet level. From another standpoint, the new statutory instrument should have enabled the Opposition PUP to make much hay on the Southside, but the 2015 PUP is surely not Mr. Rogers’ PUP. And, a story goes with that.
Power to the people. Merry Christmas.