On the eve of National Labour Day 2014

Michael BURKE

Thursday, May 22, 2014    

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THE first National Labour Day holiday in Jamaica was in 1961. Its date had to do with the replacement of another holiday, Empire Day. The then Premier of Jamaica Norman Washington Manley was concerned that we might have gone into political independence with our people still in a high state of mental colonialism. On Empire Day school children sang "Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves, the British shall never, never, never again be slaves".

There was a slight change of date from May 24 to May 23 because Alexander Bustamante — later first prime minister of independent Jamaica — founded the first all-island trade union on May 23, 1938. The then Opposition legislator David Clement Tavares proposed the one-day difference in date and the elder Manley agreed. This explains why Labour Day in Jamaica is not in September as in many other countries.

But there is a long history for making changes to holidays in this way. The Lord himself had the Holy Spirit come down on the believers of the corn festival known as Pentecost (50 days). And cultural concerns in Rome convinced the church to move the feast of the resurrection (Easter) from a few days after the fourteenth day of Nissan on the Jewish calendar to the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 21 (the first day of spring).

We need a Family Day as a public holiday in Jamaica. Some say that Jamaica has too many public holidays, although Jamaica only has 10 such days while other nations have more. But taking that view into consideration, as well as other concerns, the December 26 holiday should be renamed Family Day. It is the time that families get together anyway.

And the term Boxing Day is derogatory. Up to 200 years ago in England the servants in the castles of the nobility had to work every Christmas Day. It was the custom that after the employers had received their presents they would throw out their old stuff, as you would expect. These would be put into boxes and the servants would then distribute the items among themselves; everything from old shoes to old clothes, including old and used underwear.

So, with my proposal, I combine the need for a Family Day with the fact that Jamaica has a poor family life to begin with and the need for family units and the extended families to give quality time to each other.

This way of changing the names of holidays as I have indicated has a very long tradition, and Norman Manley used it with respect to the National Labour Day.

Many will ask why I am bringing up Boxing Day as a topic on the eve of National Labour Day. This is because we are living in a nation where it is difficult to explain to people that one should conserve water in the rainy season for the dry season. So some will ask me the above question as a part of that sort of unintelligent thinking.

We prefer to wait until there is a dry spell, when there is little or none to conserve, and then talk about what the Government should have done. The gullies should be cleaned in the dry season in preparation for the rainy season, but we prefer to wait until people are flooded out to complain about the gullies, even if the people who are flooded out contributed to the garbage in the gullies that blocked the flow.

But I have no intention of waiting until Christmas to return to this matter which I have been advocating for years. In this case, the idea of changing the name from Boxing Day affects the workers, and the idea of emphasising families on that day is a positive one for workers and, of course, everyone else. And, on the day before Labour Day, it is an excellent opportunity to bring up this topic again.

Between 1961 and 1971, National Labour Day was a time of marches and meetings organised by the trade unions. This was in keeping with the Labour Day tradition all over the world. In 1972, Michael Manley, as prime minister, introduced a new way of celebrating Labour Day with a manual community project of some sort. This has had very positive effects in the country.

When the Jamaica Labour Party won power in 1980 the Labour Day projects were de-emphasised. But it did not stop the communities from getting together on Labour Day to do a project. So they joined in the nation's effort and today just about all sides join in some project on Labour Day. This is one of the good things that came out of the 1970s which has lasted until today.

There is most certainly a need not only to continue such projects, and to return to some of them on weekends, but to take a serious look at how we can empower the workers in this country, particularly though the co-operative movement in general and credit unions in particular. Workers need to be into shareownership with their workplaces. Loans to acquire expensive items means that workers are many times tied to jobs that are oppressive.

When Michael Manley, as prime minister, announced worker shareownership in the 1970s, it came from the encyclicals of Saint John XXIII, who was pope between 1958 and 1963 (canonised last month along with Saint John Paul II). It was Saint John XXIII who wrote that workers should be shareowners of business in his encyclicals Mater et Magistra and Pacem en Terras. The idea of the minimum wage was taken from Pope Leo XIII who wrote in 1891 that workers should have a living wage.

With respect to worker shareownership, there could be a stipulation that the workers in any shareownership where the credit unions have financed the deal should save something in a credit union each month. This would increase the loan portfolio, which would further empower the credit unionists by individually giving them greater borrowing power on the stock market.

The credit union league should also buy minority shares into businesses on behalf of the workers. In addition, the credit union league should help to finance other service co-operatives in expanding their businesses to employ more workers.





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