All Woman

Workers' disputes, Cabinet wars and 9 years in the political wilderness

BY DESMOND ALLEN Executive Editor — Special Assignment

Friday, February 07, 2014    

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WHEN Michael Manley's office called Portia Simpson after the elections in December 1976, to say that he wanted to see her the next day, she was excited but apprehensive. Why did the prime minister want to see her? It could be for any number of reasons, she mused.

In bed that night, a thousand thoughts swam in her head, some positive, some negative. Was it something she had done to displease him? Did he have some great plan for her? Sleep did not come easily. But before she drifted off, something told her that the morning would bring spectacular news and it would change her life forever.

Michael Manley had pencilled in Portia Simpson's name among the people he wanted in his December 1976 Cabinet. Other MPs were there when she arrived, all of them in their Sunday best and expectant. The prime minister did not waste any time. He told her he was appointing her minister of labour, social security and sport, with responsibility for women's affairs.

Manley had been paying attention to the things he had been hearing about Simpson and he had been impressed with her unlikely victory in the Trench Town West Division in 1974 and the whipping she had given her opponent in Southwest St Andrew, a gritty inner-city constituency. He liked this woman.

"After everyone had left the room, he called me back to say that in the labour portfolio I would get to earn the trust of the unions and the respect of the employers," Simpson recalls. "In social security," he said, "there was no one like me when it comes to concern for the poorest Jamaicans. His charge to me was 'now, go and do a good job'. I don't believe I have let him down."

Back at home, Simpson reflected on what had just happened. The words of her father Zedekiah Simpson suddenly rushed back at her from a distant memory: "You are going to bring great honour to this family," he had told his little daddy's girl.

"That and many other things he said to me have stuck with me over the years. For example, he used to tell me I must buy a house and if I did I would be the first one in the family to own a home. I did just that." Old man Zedekiah wouldn't have known that she would occupy not just any house, but in time, Gordon House then Jamaica House.

On her first day at the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, it dawned on her that all that time spent with Hopeton Caven and the Trades Union Congress was preparation for this day. The industrial relations climate in Jamaica was sizzling. Strike after strike kept the ministry's conciliation unit busy putting out the fires of wage negotiations.

Simpson, with little experience on that end of the spectrum, was called upon to directly intervene in the toughest industrial disputes. But she took to it as if she were born to that purpose. And, she had an unlikely ally. Hugh Lawson Shearer, though head of the rival Jamaica Labour Party (JLP)-affiliate Bustamante Industrial Trade Union BITU) and, more importantly, a former JLP prime minister, decided she was deserving of his support and vowed in his heart that she must not fail.

She speaks of it still with a gratitude that has outlived the man. "He loved me dearly and he showed it. I remember in one case when Ruddy Spencer was the BITU officer on a worker dispute which led to a strike, he called up Ruddy and told him 'she must never fail'. Ruddy came to me afterwards and said: 'You mek Mass Hugh race me up!'" she recalls with a mysterious grin. The strike soon ended.

The bauxite industry was the biggest prize on the industrial front. It was National Workers' Union (PNP affiliate) country. A strike that shut down the industry, she recalls, provided her biggest test and the longest period of conciliation for her ministry.

At the time, William 'Vunnie' Isaacs was the Government's hot shot advisor on industrial relations. Manley used to dispatch him to tackle the impossible ones. But this time the prime minister summoned Simpson, telling her to bring Tony Irons, the ministry's conciliation guru and her main tutor, with her.

"He told me that William had been trying to resolve the dispute but without luck. The country was losing millions of dollars in foreign exchange while the strike prolonged and he wanted me to take over. I got to work immediately. But the negotiations were really tough. No one would budge. The first long day turned into a long night as well."

Simpson remembers being asked by the bauxite team to adjourn after another long day but she told them the door was locked and no one would leave until an agreement was reached. "At one point, I asked the all-male negotiating teams if they would be more comfortable if I was wearing pants. They laughed heartily when I sent home for a pair of pants and changed into it."

A new wage and fringe benefits pact was signed and word got around about Simpson's skills. When another prolonged strike hit the National Water Commission, she took charge but needed to leave, at one stage. The disputing parties reminded her about how she got agreement with the bauxite people and urged her to remain with them. Agreement came soon after.

She believes that during that period she and her team, which included people like Irons, Gresford Smith and Orville Taylor, transformed the industrial relations landscape.

"Expectations were high that I could resolve any strike -- the port workers, the tanker drivers, and many others. We worked hard, but I had a good team," she says, noting that the ministry was a great training ground for her and recalling a time when in Australia one had to serve first as minister of labour to be considered for prime minister.

Simpson also had a heart for the farm and hospitality workers, fretting all the time about the deplorable conditions they had to endure when they came to the ministry's recruitment offices at East Street, Kingston, many from the rural parts.

The women, in particular, did not have proper sanitary facilities or a place to change their clothes. Many of them slept on the floor. And criminals would prey on them. When she built the modern Farm Worker Centre, with nice dorms and a spacious canteen, it was mission accomplished.

"I was the first minister to visit the farm workers' accommodation overseas, too. On one occasion when they complained about the food, I stayed till meal time and ate the food to see for myself. I was able to make successful representation on their behalf, a small thing it seemed, but it meant a great deal to the workers," she adds.

On the social security side, she worried for the pensioners, noting that some of them paid more to get to a collection point than the actual pension they received. She was determined to improve the paltry benefits.

Growing in confidence after each success, she tackled the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) with unbridled enthusiasm. "I asked Alvin McIntosh, my permanent secretary, what could we do to get the funds to grow so that we can improve the benefits to these suffering Jamaicans who had worked all their lives to end up with so little. The funds were just lying in the Bank of Jamaica. I wanted to know if we could invest it. He said we could do it if Cabinet approved. But we would have to make the relevant Cabinet submission," Simpson Miller recounts.

She ran the idea by Shearer, who was sceptical, feeling that the prime minister and the finance minister would not let it work. "I told him 'I am woman, watch me'," she recalls.

Simpson called Manley and explained what she wanted to do. He immediately agreed, saying it was a splendid idea. The Cabinet submission was approved and she was on her way. The first investment was J$100 million in a Montego Bay hotel as part of a joint venture with a private owner. A board headed by Dunbar McFarlane of NCB fame was set up to manage the NIS fund. It worked like a charm and pension benefits were improved.

But if Simpson believed that the going was always going to be that easy, she had another guess coming. Still concerned that NIS benefits were too low in the face of rising inflation, she made yet another Cabinet submission for an increase. The figure proposed by the finance ministry was much less than she had requested and she refused to sign the submission.

This was dangerous territory she was treading and she was one woman against the world. But Simpson held her ground. At Cabinet, when Manley saw the unsigned submission, he asked why her signature was not on it. She explained to him and he referred the matter to the actuary, Daisy Coke, who came up with a better figure which Cabinet approved.

"When I see the billions in the fund today and that the NIS is cash rich, I feel that I was able to do something for the government pensioners of my country. We invested in the old Air Jamaica building, the tax office at Constant Spring and in the Braco Hotel, Trelawny. I am very proud of that achievement," she says.

Simpson worked the women's portfolio with tireless activists such as Beverley Manley, the prime minister's wife, and shared in the joy of a raft of legislation including the Status of Children's Act which ended bastardy that affected mostly poor Jamaicans born out of wedlock; Equal Pay for Women; the Maternity Leave with Pay law and the like.

But while the 1970s heralded much social progress, it was a different story on the economy. By the time Manley called elections for October 1980, a year before they were due, the country was reeling. Many in the upper and middle classes, fearing that Manley was veering too close to Communist Cuba, were voting with their feet, most seeking refuge in Miami and Toronto. One graffiti declared: 'The last one to leave, please turn out the lights!'

The elections would become Jamaica's bloodiest to date. Police numbers said 800 people were reported killed. Simpson's Southwest St Andrew took the heaviest casualties. In one case, 11 persons were killed in Majesty Gardens. In another case, seven.

"I buried more people than any other politician that year," she recounts.

The PNP took its heaviest defeat and saw Edward Seaga's JLP take power. Simpson was a member of the Opposition, which went into a period of self-searching. But before the retrospection could end, the wily Seaga took advantage of a surge in the public opinion polls and called snap general elections, two years ahead of time in December 1983. Manley skilfully countered with a boycott of the elections and all 60 seats in Gordon House were filled by JLP candidates, creating an untenable situation.

Simpson was forced to endure another six years in the political wilderness where she waited out the time. It was a difficult period that would take every ounce of resilience she had. The PNP was changing out of its Democratic Socialist clothing and into a new free enterprise garb. The transformation was painful and some fell away.

By 1989, the country was again clamouring for the PNP and Michael Manley. It was the dawn of the decade of the 90s and already it was becoming clear that it could not be business as usual, whether in politics or business. When Manley's office called after the February elections, it was a more sanguine Portia Simpson who picked up the phone.

Manley said he was happy with her performance between 1976 and 1980 and her resoluteness through the barren years out of Parliament from 1980 to 1989. He asked her to go back to the Ministry of Labour, Social Security and Sport. That was what she was hoping for.

Between 1989 and 1992, she worked her portfolios hard. But it was a sad time, too, because her boss, Manley, had grown increasingly ill. It came as no surprise when he announced he was stepping down and handing over the reins as prime minister and party president. Party elections would be held to find the next leader.

What came as an even bigger surprise was when Portia Simpson threw her hat in the ring to face none other than the mighty P J Patterson! The question even admirers asked was 'has Portia knocked her head? What has she been drinking?'

The roller coaster ride was only now about to begin.

SUNDAY: What made Portia Simpson decide to take on P J Patterson


In the second instalment of Portia Simpson-Miller – the 40th anniversary interview published on Friday, February 7, 2014, Simpson Miller was erroneously located in certain events of the 1970s. She was appointed minister of labour, social security and sports in 1989 and not 1976. The events related to that appointment therefore unfolded after 1989. After the 1976 elections, she was appointed parliamentary secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister in 1977. Also, Simpson-Miller’s parents did not operate a shop as the piece said. The errors are sorely regretted.

– The author





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