The long-awaited budget speech by Prime Minister John Briceño on Friday, April 9, signaled the end of a month-long, tense period of negotiations between GOB and the Joint Unions (National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB), Public Service Union (PSU), Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU), and Association of Public Service Senior Managers (APSSM)), but it by no means signals the end of problems facing the new PUP administration, despite its two recent landslide victories at the polls, national and municipal. It may have been the end of the beginning of another epic clash of these major unions with the government, and it may also be the beginning of the end of whatever dreams the ruling party may have held of possible back-to-back national election wins.
The game is not over yet for the PUP, where the 2025 elections are concerned. The situation seems on the brink, but there are still a few pitches to be made, and a home run is always possible.
We are just getting into the first year of the new PUP administration under PM John Briceño, and it may seem quite premature to speculate that far ahead to 2025, but the wise Belizean people have over the years shown a tendency to remember things, “lee breeze” talk notwithstanding. They may seem resigned to a situation, but when the time comes to show their inner hurt and anger, we get landslide sweeps at the polls.
It has happened to the blue and to the red at different points in our young nation’s history, and it can happen again. Sure, with all of four years plus to accomplish a turnaround in the economy, the PUP may gamble that, “like wahn lee breeze,” the bad memories will be forgotten. For some individuals prone to bribery and quick-fix handouts, such might often be the case; but the unions’ voting pool is large, and there will be three years of painful reminders.
Many may be reluctant to make noise or show their discontent, but the Belizean democracy is still alive, and their day will surely come. It would therefore be prudent for Prime Minister John Briceño to consider very carefully his next “at bat” with the unions, for that may determine the measure of smooth sailing for the rest of his administration, and could seal his party’s fate, as night follows day, in the next general elections.
The unions are not stupid people, and they are not grossly selfish. That is the impression the PUP would seem to want the Belizean people to have of the unions, who seem intransigent in their refusal to accept government’s proposed 10% salary cut and wage freeze for 3 years. The persistent theme that we all must sacrifice for the good of the nation in this unprecedented financial crisis, seems to accuse the unions of being selfish.
This is not the first crisis facing our nation, and the unions have been pivotal. There were the Heads of Agreement; there was the period of unrest surrounding BTL’s management/ownership and other affairs; and most recently the Belize National Teachers Union stood out for eleven days to insist that government, the UDP then, make some good governance concessions, most strikingly the signing on to the UNCAC, which they see as critical to solving our debt problems.
The problem of corruption has bedeviled consecutive administrations, and Belizeans have generally come to the conclusion that neither a UDP nor a PUP government can put a dent in this culture of corruption, as long as the Commissioner of Police answers to a Minister, who is a member of the ruling party. With all the cries and accusations of corruption from either party when in Opposition, none from their ranks have ever spent some time as guests of the Kolbe Foundation in Burrell Boom.
The glaring proof of the impotence of our governance structure in regard to political crimes or corruption has been on display on more than one occasion, most notably when a Commissioner of Police refused to abide by instructions of the Chief Justice to investigate and prosecute a sitting member of the House.
The reason that the John Briceño-led PUP government is facing a critical test, is because the unions have not yet been convinced that government is “real” with them, in regard to the sacrifices being asked of them.
It is a matter of trust. One huge gesture that would engender a major leap in trust in the current administration would be a move to access the UNCAC, seen by the unions as perhaps the only way out of the current culture of corruption. The last government, the UDP, promised to cut out corruption with a sharp machete, but instead embraced this vice with a gusto never seen before. The teachers did force them to sign on to the UNCAC, but they dragged their feet on its implementation.
The PUP, despite their campaign promise to implement the UNCAC, have chosen to harp on the optics of “surrendering our sovereignty” to outside agents. Interestingly, a recent Guatemalan president, Jimmy Morales, when the heat on himself and his associates was building, chose to “kick out” the UNCAC representative from his country. He saw what had happened to his predecessor, who was sentenced to a few years in prison on corruption charges. So, a lot of excuses have been given.
On the matter of the 10% salary cut and increment freeze, voices in the unions have indicated that if push comes to shove, if it is absolutely needed, they would be prepared to “bite the bullet” and suffer the consequences of such a painful loss of earnings, for the love of Belize. But they are not convinced of government’s sincerity, and they have raised a number of points to show that government is not serious, including the fact that ministers and CEOs are still maintaining half their luxury allowances and only cutting their massive salaries by 15%.
We are all in this together, and everybody must “pull his weight” if we are to survive as a nation. Nobody is asking the ministers to give up all their salary, but they will have to consider what measure of cut will fit the bill required to inspire the support and trust of the unions. And that is not hard for them to find out. That’s what negotiations are for.