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Friday, May 30, 2008

The Good Fight


Dr. Lester CN Simon

In The Struggle and the Conquest, the venerable Sir Novelle Richards chronicled the formation, rise and fracture of the trade union movement in Antigua and Barbuda. Today, in these troubling times of increases in the costs of food and energy and the consequent demands for increases in salaries and wages, it might be useful to revisit the role of trade unions in Antigua and Barbuda.

A well earned conquest should embolden us to face the inevitable next struggle that lies ahead since struggles and conquests are in constant revolution and evolution. Based on past conquests, the fundamental struggle ahead might be seen by some as being relatively easy. It might simply be a case of using the same tools, the same well-kept, oiled and shiny weapons of war and deploying the same tried and proven negotiation tactics. At the very minimum, some would argue that the gains already achieved should be non-negotiable and neither an inch nor a single blade of grass should be given up.

In practice, the real struggle ahead can be extremely difficult if only because modern warfare demands not just thinking outside the box but destroying the entire box and exposing and trusting a cultivated ability to think clearly and logically far away from the maddening crowd, at least initially. Ironically, this new thinking demands a return to basic problem solving in the sense that the parameters of the problem must be clearly identified, a solution envisaged and the best possible line, straight or curved, drawn between the two ends so as to encompass as many as possible, especially those who cannot fend for themselves.

And so, once again, my dear good people, the future of Antigua and Barbuda depends on the organized union of workers. This time though, we need men and women who can go way beyond the struggles waged by those who came before us in 1939. But it is instructive to look back.

Sir Novelle wrote that, “The aim of the Trade Union Movement was that workers in the Sugar Industry should be accepted as partners…” This was a noble imperative because the reason given for this partnership was so that, “…They could share in the wealth created by the Industry, rather than being tools employed to do the job.” Anyone who translates “the wealth created by the industry” to mean only the money made by the industry should recall that Sir Novelle wrote the words to our national anthem including the line, “Each endeavouring, all achieving”.

Sir Novelle recorded the resistance of the planters and noted that only improved production efficiency would allow for increases to workers without reduction of the profit margins of the sugar producers. It might be surprising to those who saw Moody-Stuart as the proverbial fly in the ointment, to learn that, “Moody-Stuart and others were willing to accept the challenge and saw the necessity for higher efficiency…. (but)… there were others who did not relish the additional exertion and planning necessitated by the challenge”. As it was in the beginning, so it is now.

A paradigm shift is begging to be ushered in, in which tripartism encompassing government, employer and union step back from their entrenched and cultured, confrontational garrisons. Someone has to jump on a horse and ride into town and tell the old soldiers that the old battles have been won and that a greater war, requiring modern weapons, is being waged. Worse, having defeated the imperialist and colonialist enemies, we are making imperial and colonial mountains out of our own molehill selves.

In the chapter in which Sir Novelle peeks at the future of trade unionism in Antigua and Barbuda, he wrote that, “Antigua gained considerably from the period of industrial peace brought about by the willingness on the part of both Management and the Union, to co-operate and understand each other’s viewpoint”. It is impossible to improve upon the original but I dare say that were Sir Novelle alive today, he might have said that government, management and union not only need to understand each other’s viewpoint, they must actively and deliberately act on these viewpoints in real partnership, in real time, in real place. After all, this was the man who penned the lines in our anthem, “Raise the standard, raise it boldly! Answer now to duty’s call.”

And so when the lids are removed from the chatterboxes and we hear chatter-chatter about the legitimate needs and wants of workers, we have to understand that many Antiguans and Barbudans who are new employers have just stepped out from amongst the ranks of the employed. In the struggle to run such businesses, looking at employers today the same way we looked at those of yesteryear will stifle the very oxygen we all, employee and employer, need to breath to stay alive. This is especially so in the context of the labor code, a masterful and necessary compendium of rules, regulations and guidelines, in abject need of modernization.

And so too, when you hear all the cling and clang and bang-bang and vulgar recitation of veiled and naked threats to government and relatively little talk about performance appraisal; when the word audit refers only to finance and not to every accountable and countable aspect of work that directly and indirectly affect production, we must regard the words of Sir Novelle. After all, he was the one who wrote, “We commit ourselves to building a true nation, brave and free”.

One of the most difficult struggles facing us is the issue of non-nationals. It should be understood that the real enemy might be in camouflage and the perceived enemy might actually be our ally. It is important to understand that in war, generals will destroy a village to win a battle, confident in the knowledge that they can rebuild the village after the conquest. Suffice to say that a mended soul, never the same as the original, can be the source of endless trouble. Having lived in Jamaica for thirteen years, I feel compelled to reprint a few lines from a previous article for those of us who seemed to have manufactured a particular Jamaican in our own image.

“Moses was born an Israelite but he was raised in Egypt in Pharaoh’s house. One school of philosophical thought says that Moses did not enter the promise land because his nationality was ambivalent. Leaders must understand that foreigners always know their place. When we are foreigners overseas or when foreigners come here, we all abide by this unwritten rule. But the same industry and drive that drive all of us to become foreigners also drive us to take whatever is available, even if that means taking over the whole adopted country or the promised land, unless rules, customs and burning bushes militate against this.”

Hence, when we wantonly disrespect our own, we are telling others how we run things here. And obviously, being good non-nationals, they want to be just as disrespectful as us. Seriously though, for those who prance up and down and cry xenophobia when Antiguans and Barbudans talk about non-nationals, they must understand that whilst many different battles are fought in the development of a country, there is a single, larger war that circumscribes all these battles. Therefore, when we are admonished to fight fear and hatred of others, we must remember the third of the three battles, poverty, that make up the war.

The best place to be hungry is at home. Poverty should not be manufactured for the sake of fighting poverty. Unplanned migration with the attendant poor planning in health and education will hurt first and foremost the very same non-national whom we indispensably need to help develop this country. It was Sir Novelle who told us about the struggle that would come after the conquest, a struggle he noted that would require us to gird our loins and join the battle against fear, hate and poverty. It must mean something that this call to arms in our anthem precedes and is a prerequisite to, “Each endeavouring, all achieving”.