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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Keeping Company


Dr. Lester CN Simon

Sometimes we have to look back to see ahead. We should go through this exercise now as we try to chart a course out of these perilous economic times. I have heard it said by intelligent people that in times like these we need a saviour. Whenever we say this, and if we really mean it, we must ask ourselves if the saviour has not already given us the answer through the written words of one of our sterling, native sons.

We have had the good fortune of experiencing two polar examples of relationships between companies and workers, to know right from wrong. We have had companies with varying degrees of unionized workers from militant to token unionization. We have also had companies, including a spectacular one, which not only had no unionized workers, they covertly or overtly abhorred unionization.

Examination of both extremes should tell us that militant unionization and no unionization are ultimately counterproductive. When we hear union officials cry out for workers and extol the fundamental rights of workers, we are reminded of the origin and history of trade unionism in this country. We should balance this with the genuine cries of some employers. We regard the Labour Code almost as a sacred document, even though it has some imbalances and is in need of revision and modernization.

To understand the opportunity rather than the danger we are facing in these perilous, economic times, we must re-read one paragraph of The Struggle and the Conquest by Sir Novelle Richards. Parts of it read, “The aim of the Trade Union Movement was that workers in the sugar industry should be accepted as partners, whereby they could share in the wealth created by the industry, rather than being tools employed to do a job.”

This text, which should be in all workplaces, goes on to say that the planters resisted this partnership approach. It notes that increases in wages would mean less profit for the company, unless there was improved production efficiency. The trade union movement at that time challenged the producers to this paradigm shift of improved production efficiency to balance the warranted increases in wages. The seminal paragraph of the text ends by noting that men like Moody-Stuart and others were willing to accept the challenge but “others did not relish the additional exertion and planning necessitated by this challenge.”

So, it is written, that the producers, the owners, were too lazy to exert themselves, to work, to plan, in order to make their own business more efficient. This is sterling stuff by Sir Novelle Richards. However, if the dead could cry, he would be bawling long eye water to discover that after all the struggles and conquests, we have arrived at a stalemate. Not only are some producers and owners still too lazy to exert themselves to improve efficiency, when some of them honour the raison d’etre of the trade union movement, there are workers who do not want to join the partnership-efficiency struggle.

The fault does not lie just with some owners and some workers, it is also seated in the lap of some trade union officials. Hopefully they express disapproval of some actions of their workers in private when the workers are blatantly wrong. But some things must be acknowledged in public: like the wanton abuse of the sick leave provisions in the Labour Code. And since we are on the topic of sick leave and acknowledgement in public, let me shout out that a few doctors and some workers are unconscionably and wantonly bartering sick leave. There is a vulgar joke about a postman who went to deliver a letter to a doctor and was offered a sick leave certificate, without asking for one; and even before he had delivered the letter, or had a clinical examination.

Last year, in a telling article by Banks and Coutu, in Harvard Business Review, some clues were given on how to protect your job in a recession. Suggestions included starting to act like a business partner and a survivor if you really want to be one. Studies show that supervisors and management will often choose workers that are more congenial than those who might be more capable but difficult to work with. It was also suggested that workers be ambidextrous and wear multiple hats, aiming to improve efficiency.

The basic plan is not to become depressed, helpless and hopeless. The article noted that studies of concentration camp survivors showed that a central, defining requirement for survival is to see a good future ahead rather than bury your head in the current quicksand. The article did not note that the black West Indian history of survival during slavery was based on this fundamental strategy whilst we were labouring under inhumane conditions to build much of the western world on sugar and spice and everything but nice. The successful West Indian response to this present world crisis is predicated on a thorough re-examination of our past histories and conquests.

In these times, even if you are employed, you should have a survival strategy in case the worse comes and you lose your job. You should carefully consider and plan for working for yourself or joining a group of similar workers and starting something new or unique. To become the best worker you can be in any company, you might have to lose your job during a recession and work for yourself to redefine your work ethic and possibilities. In the while, companies will have to be wise enough, or be forced by circumstance, to take on the original, primary aim of the trade union movement, or risk going under.

While you are working for yourself during hard times, you must make yourself more marketable for the future, when a job turns up. Self employment will enable you to discover that ultimate and yet fundamental journey that all workers, management and union officials will have to undertake to realize the post slavery and post colonial meaning of work. It will change the concepts of terms bandied about, like union, employers’ federation, trade union, chamber of commerce, workers union, or, the perfectly named, trade-and-labour union.

Working for yourself will not only prepare you for the best company you can keep, it will prepare you for the best partnership company that can keep you; the Novelle dictum, if you wish, for these and all times.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Jamboree for the Living


Dr. Lester CN Simon

It was with bitter sadness and curdled regret that many of us endured the passing of the Antigua and Barbuda Jazz Festival; a festival that we had worked so hard to build but could not sustain against all sorts of odds. I am not jealous of the success of the other regional jazz festivals but I have never had the urge to attend. I am still looking for a music festival that not only adds to the national coffers but one that leaves me and other local musicians and all of us so enriched musically that we want to sing and dance beside ourselves. I think I have found one.

Classical music is often regarded as European music to be played by Europeans only; or at least music that is played best by them. Indeed, many Europeans have championed this stereotype and often look askance at outsiders who venture to break down the sacred halls of their cultural birthright. Moreover, some of our own West Indians classical musicians have performed this protector function better than some Europeans. The colonized surpasses the colonizer.

It is for reasons like these, as well as simple unfamiliarity, that many West Indians will tell you that classical music is dead music by dead composers. They regard it as funeral and funereal music that must be shut out from their ears and barred from their minds. Strange. These are the same folks who will tell you about a wonderful, classic movie they thoroughly enjoyed. And yet they seemingly ignored the fact that the wonderful, classic movie they extol was made wonderful and classic largely because of the same classical music they despise.

Classical music and Jazz (not the 5 minutes popular, smooth jazz version; but the more extended format) came to me the same way reading a book without pictures came to me as a child. It was difficult at first; but then I discovered I could paint my own pictures, even if my pictures were slightly different from the ones painted by others, including the writer or composer.

I have to confess that I took a lucky shortcut into classical music. I decided to listen to classical music centered around instruments I like to hear; like the cello, violin, viola, clarinet, flute, French horn or English horn. I also have to confess that the first time I heard Dvorak cello concerto, I was moved to dance along to a particular passage as easily (well almost as easily) as I had danced the first time I heard Bob Marley, Shadow, Super Blue or John Coltrane.

The idea that music is the universal language and that all emotions can be experienced in all forms of music is a universally acknowledged truth. So here is another confession: I once thought country and western music was the pits. I started to change my mind when a friend (Dorbrene O’Mard) remarked that the stories were similar to those of calypso. I was finally convinced when I read that Charlie Parker would often listen to country and western music in night clubs, to the dismay of fans and other jazz musicians. When asked what he found in such simple music, he responded, “The stories, man. Listen to the stories.” And jazz and all other types of music, including classical music, are all about stories, stories in sound, with vacant canvases waiting for you to paint the pictures of your life. Also, Charles Mingus, in response to a snide remark about the simplicity of folk music, reminded that all music is folk music because horses do not sing. It’s all folk.

So why not have a classical music festival? Jazz festivals, including its many and varied formats, have been taken to the point of exhaustion, repetition and redundancy. Calypso and soca abound. Pop, Creole and world music are also taken. What will happen to our Romantic Rhythms? If it follows the path of our jazz festival, what’s left?

With or without Romantic Rhythms, we can start a classical music festival by bringing together overseas and local musicians, including, and here is the kick: steel pan players. Such a festival would be the culmination of one or two weeks of music workshops. Television programs and documentaries will be showcasing the twin islands whilst recording the development of the festival through the personal journeys of the musicians and the progress of the musical items. You might recall that in its early years, the St. Lucia Jazz Festival included workshops, to which regional musicians were invited. Sadly, this was smoothed over by the smooth jazz and pop.

Before and after the celebrated success of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, many classical music aficionados said that the future of classical music was in Venezuela. They also pointed to China. Antigua and Barbuda has strong ties with these countries. In the April, 2009 edition of Classic FM magazine, a 16 year old violinist of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, Angelica Leon, said that music taught her so much, from being on time to working as part of a group. Youth in this orchestra have been taken from the chores of rustic, rural farms to playing music in palatial concert halls all over the world.

Centering a classical music festival around visiting and local musicians with the aim of improving and extracting musical talent, in addition to attracting regional and more distant visitors, will give our local musicians, including pan players, something else to aim for. It will help to force the older, lazy musicians to adapt or be relegated to the back rooms of some of the hotels, playing Yellow Bird and Jamaica Farewell.

What do we do when some of our nationally conscious music lovers start to complain that all this concentration on classical music is making us neglect our indigenous music? We will show them that the skills acquired from playing classical music and the responsibility of being in an orchestra can carry over to calypso, soca, jazz or whichever type of music they request. Indeed, if you listen carefully, you might just hear local musicians whispering or singing a vaguely familiar tune to each other, in uppity tones: Bach to Bach, Bob to Marley, give me any band, we learned music already. Sing the chorus. Bach to ….

Friday, April 3, 2009

How The Rest Was Won


Dear Editor

I am alarmed and frightened to hear that the UPP took us into the last general elections knowing that the voter list was padded and flawed. Someone from the UPP should clarify this issue and say what options, if any, were opened to the UPP party armed with this terrible information.

The manager of one of the UPP candidates said on Observer Radio that they tried in vain to address the electoral commission on the matter of some 900 registered voters who they could not account for. And so, they decided to “take a chance”. Take a chance with an entire country on the wings of a prayer?

Is the UPP a religious organization? The overemphasis of God seems to be a cover for its crass ineptitude. I now understand why one of the commissioners (Ms. Agnes Blaize) from the electoral office said on Serpent’s show some weeks before the elections that God sees everything. Not even the Vatican could or would prepare for an election like this.

I am now asking if the some members of the electoral commission had let out to the UPP candidates that the list was padded. Is this why an independent inquiry has not been mounted into the abject failure of the electoral commission?

Believing in God is essential. But the good Lord help those who help themselves. Depending on God to win a general election because of the abject blunder of your party machinery, and then praising God for the victory, is sacrilegious and deserving of a hot, pointed seat in the deep recesses of hell.

So what is the way forward against this terrible world economic condition we now face? Let’s build as many churches as possible and praise the Lord. Amen.

(The following was not in the original letter)

But the service is not over. After church, I recall the strong, almost umbilical affinity some members of the ALP have for their party, even though they know that the ALP top brass have been accused of corruption in public office. I am hastily turning around on my Damascus road to avoid this epiphany:

When ALP politicians are accused of corruption, they themselves may be forced to hold a public inquiry, or the UPP can mount one, regardless of how long it takes to get to the truth. When the UPP government and party give away the governing of the country on the wings of a prayer (like they almost did), and console us by saying it was God’s will, what sort of public inquiry do we hold? A public inquiry into God?

Dr. Lester CN Simon