Dwight Nelson: He is not himself if he does not serve

Sunday, January 06, 2019

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This feature, first published in April 2005 in The Desmond Allen Interviews series, is being republished today in tribute to Dwight Nelson, former national security minister and veteran trade unionist, who died on December 24, 2018.

Dwight Nelson might live to rue the day he allowed Hugh Lawson Shearer and company to beguile him into joining the trade union movement. He has not been able to extricate himself since, and the one time he really tried, on account of economic reasons, he had run back shortly after to his natural habitat, saying he couldn't find comfort away from it.

Nelson belongs to that group of people, condemned, it seems — though they wouldn't say it that way — to spend all their lives serving the hewers of wood and drawers of water. And even when financial pressures and mounting family responsibilities demanded a switch in career choice, he was never in doubt about what he really wanted to be doing, serving.

Ask the people on the board of St George's College where he is the longest-serving member; the board of Convent of Mercy Alpha Academy; National Planning Committee; National Labour Advisory Council; and the National Productivity Committee, to name some. These days too he serves in the high seat of the Senate, but curiously vows never to enter representational politics again after a tentative first attempt in 1974, when he was advised by a garrisonian Tony Spaulding never to set foot again in the Jones Town Division where he was a Jamaica Labour Party candidate in municipal elections.

In a significant way, two deaths have helped to influence the course of Nelson's life — first that of his father, Clarence Nelson who died when he was but two years old and out of which he would learn respect for sacrifice and dedication as his mother toiled to bring him up alone; and the death of his wife, Pauline, leaving him with six children to learn how to mother. Above all, Dwight Nelson is shaped by the cherished traditions of Jamaican trade unionism. He negotiates for underpaid workers as if it were his last duty one earth.

In recent times Nelson has embarked on a path that is charting his own legacy in Jamaica's first government-trade union memorandum of understanding, exchanging job security for a wage freeze. But he must first survive the vilification and death threats from political colleagues who angrily believe he is letting the Government off the hook.

Woodford Park and St George's College

Dwight Augustus Nelson, born on July 22, 1950, was the only child for Clarence Nelson, a building contractor, and Lilian Nelson nee Walters. They were a lower middle class family living in Woodford Park, Allman Town, at the time. His grandfather was a compositor at the Gleaner Company and his maternal uncle, Consie Walters, later of Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation fame, was a reporter with the newspaper.

Nelson's neighbours included people with significant names today, like Poko Chandiram the philanthropist merchant; Lascelles Chin, the LASCO founder and principal; and Elias Issa, father of Abe Issa. There were many Chinese families living there too, he recalls. His first school was St Aloysius Boys, a sort of ancestral school for all male members of his family, on Duke Street in downtown Kingston. He owes much of his early grounding to this school from which the outstanding athlete, Errol Hall, came.

From there Nelson passed his Common Entrance Examination to St George's College, North Street. He remembers that it was “a highly stratified school society along class and colour lines, where you found an identity only unless you were a star athlete or academically outstanding”.

Nelson, who claims the strange hobby of “harassing conceited persons”, says that when he casts his mind back to those school days, he can't quite understand how certain St George's old boys (who shall be nameless), then regarded as from the upper class elite, come now to be championing the cause of the poor. “It is good, but it is also bad because it questions their credibility,” he insists.

But he did well there, noting that he had skipped second form and had been known as a top elocutionist for the school. “George's”, at the time, was regarded as the top high school in academics and in extra-curricular activities in Jamaica, getting the most Rhodes Scholarships and bursaries to universities such as The University of the West Indies (UWI) and the Ivy Leaguers like Harvard and Yale in the United States.

Some of the most highly placed professionals today came from St George's. He singles out people like Willard Pinnock, recently honoured by The UWI; Dr Ronald Young; Professor Trevor Munroe, Ronnie Thwaites; Drs Peter and Mark Figueroa, among a host of others. He notes that he came second in his graduating class behind Peter Figueroa, who was the valedictorian while he was the salutatorian.

The stratification there also applied to the teachers from the traditional training institutions versus the Jesuit Priests who started the school. The Jamaicans always had to struggle to find their identity and he names one memorable example as Professor Edwin Jones, now head of the Social Sciences Department at UWI. Nelson also recalls with some sadness that but for the fact that his mother could not afford to buy him a tennis racquet, he might have been one of Jamaica's biggest tennis stars today.

My mother who fathered me

But from his mother he learnt to respect sacrifice and dedication after his father died, “and she became my father too”. “It had a lasting impression on me and my own resolve to help those who cannot help themselves.”

In 1965, Nelson left St George's after A' Levels. While he was awaiting the results, the Jamaica Teachers' Association — under the presidency of the late Aubrey Phillips, the father of Security Minister Dr Peter Phillips — had started a programme to recruit bright students with great potential to the teaching profession. He was among those invited and sent on an intensive training programme at Shortwood Teachers' College. At the end, he was placed at Golden Grove Primary School in St Thomas where he taught maths, English, football, and cricket.

He spent a year at Golden Grove but stops short of saying he hated the time there. “Let's just say that it was a different experience for me, living in a rural area,” says Nelson. He would go back to Kingston every single weekend of that year. During the period, he applied both to Mico Teachers' College and The UWI and was accepted by both. Not sure what to do, he was advised by Aubrey Phillips to go to UWI. But something intervened.

The BITU bug bites

“Many of the fellows I had known from Woodford Park had gone to work in industry and some of them had joined the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU). There had been a change in the profile of trade union leadership and they were employing a lot of university graduates, as against the previous reliance on delegates from the shop floor,” Nelson recounts. “For example, the BITU took on people like Clifton Stone, Errol Anderson, and Pearnel Charles; while the National Workers' Union (NWU) employed people the likes of a Carlisle Dunkley.”

Anderson created a social organisation within the BITU called the Young Workers Council and on the weekends that he returned to town from Golden Grove Nelson would accompany his BITU friends to the meetings.

Not long after, Hugh Shearer, the BITU president, Anderson, and Edith Nelson (not related) invited him to join the BITU. He was sent to Rex Nettleford, then director of the Trade Union Education Institute at The UWI, for basic training in trade unionism. Three months after joining the BITU, he got a Canadian AID scholarship to do labour and international relations at the Labour College of Canada in Montreal. He recalls that Berl Francis, the PR doyenne, was also living in that Canadian city at the time.

He was there when a violent but significant incident took place. Rosie Douglas, the late former prime minister of Dominica, was part of the black power movement at Sir George William University, now Concordia, in 1968. Protesting against racism, a group of West Indian students completely destroyed the computer centre and set it on fire. Douglas accepted responsibility and was sentenced to two years in prison. At the end of his sentence he was banned from Canada and went home to become prime minister of Dominica some years later.

His course having been completed, Nelson returned to the BITU where he was apprenticed to the veteran Joseph McPherson to learn the cut and thrust of organisation and contract negotiation. In 1970, he entered UWI to do his first degree in history and economics. But then something else intervened.

Rampage at UWI

A group including Louis Castriota, then president of the People's National Party Youth Organisation, and Trevor Munroe decided to organise a rally to force then Barclays Bank (now NCB) off the UWI campus because of its British parent company's investment in apartheid-era South Africa. “The gathering became boisterous and went on a rampage throughout the campus, turning over cars, damaging a lecture room, and even disrupting a luncheon in the Assembly Hall where the guest of honour was Britain's Princess Alice, then chancellor of the UWI.” Nelson was among the group.

The angry UWI administration retaliated by suspending the students. “So my UWI studies were interrupted for a couple of years,” says Nelson. But he was there long enough to remember that his St George's schoolmate, Hervin Chung, had become only the first first-year student at UWI to become president of the Guild of Undergraduates.

Advice from Rex Nettleford

Out of UWI, he went back to the BITU. But seeing the potential of this young dynamite, Rex Nettleford sat him down some years later and showed him why he needed to go back to university. “He told me that it was imperative that I complete UWI if I wanted to survive as a little black boy in this society. So I took his advice and went back.” Nelson completed his first degree and went on to graduate studies in public administration and communication.

But before that, in 1974, he flirted with representational politics. One didn't have to think about it much. It was a natural progression from membership in the BITU to membership in the JLP, the political party to which the union had given birth. Nelson, by then, had become chairman of Young Jamaica, the youth arm of the party, with Desmond McKenzie as his vice-chairman. Later, when the party wanted to attract a different level of young professionals, Bruce Golding asked Nelson to form the Nationalist Patriotic Movement, which would be known for masterminding the first gas riots in January 1978 under President Michael Williams and his wife, Joan.

Leave Jones Town and

So feeling his oats, Nelson decided to run on the JLP ticket for a seat in the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation in the Jones Town Division. This was part of the St Andrew Southern constituency of the legendary Anthony Spaulding. Wilfred Walters and his wife, Nelson's maternal grandparents, had lived for many years at 36 Penn Street in Jones Town and he felt comfortable on the hustings. But as Nelson campaigned one day in Jones Town, Spaulding and a hostile crowd accosted him. “He said to me: 'I know your grandfather. I know your grandmother. I know your uncle. I know all your relatives. Take this advice from me. Leave Jones Town and never come back.' I must say I obeyed and have not been back since,” Nelson can now laugh.

Since that time too, he has stayed out of representational politics, except for a brief period as caretaker for the St Andrew South Eastern constituency, declaring now that he has no intention of ever seeking office again. “I am not now and will never have any further interest in representational politics.”

Raw power of the trade union

Reflecting on his time at the BITU up to then, Nelson says that when he arrived the union movement was in transition. The profile of trade union membership was essentially blue collar — factory workers, agricultural workers, stevedores and the like. The relationship between unions/workers and management /employers was a hostile one. He recalls being accused by a group of workers of “selling out the workers” because he had accepted a cup of coffee at a meeting negotiating wages. Union representatives were not expected to even smile when they were before the employers. This was treacherous behaviour.

“Trade union practice was an exercise in raw power. When workers did not get what they wanted, they would just lock down the place. There was no regulatory framework on trade union behaviour. The Essential Services law did not apply to things like factories,” Nelson explains. And the Labour Relations and Industrial Relations Act did not come till much later. Relationship between union and union was also very violent at the time, he adds. “I have seen a lot of my friends lose their lives in trade union clashes.”

Nelson has also seen and participated in many of the more recent developments that have changed the union landscape. The leadership is now more professional, with many university-trained officers. The membership has moved considerably from blue-collar to white-collar. Emphasis these days is on education and training, and on expanding relations with regional and international organisations.

Nelson is grateful that he was spared much of the hostility which marked the politics of the 1970s when he was maturing as a trade unionist. He attributes this largely to the warm relations between Shearer, the BITU head, and Michael Manley, the prime minister. “This sort of provided the BITU functionaries with some insulation from the naked effects of the political hostilities.” It also helped that government-to-government talks between Jamaica and Norway had led to the setting up of the Joint Trades Union Research and Development Centre (JTURDC), which he would chair for five years during the 1980s.

The centre served the four major unions — BITU led by Shearer, Lascelles Beckford and Clifton Stone; NWU led by Carlisle Dunkley and Roy Thompson; TUC (Trades Union Congress) — headed by Hopeton Caven; and JALGO (Jamaica Association of Local Government Officers), headed by E Lloyd Taylor.

It was the JTURDC that later evolved into the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions (JCTU) embracing 13 unions, with Nelson eventually becoming president in 2004.

Visit to President Bush

He recalls interfacing a lot with Manley because of joint BITU/NWU wage negotiations and later in continuing discussions between the trade union leadership and the PNP prime minister, which he attended in his capacity as assistant island supervisor of the BITU. He got to know Manley even better in the 1990s when he was invited to join a delegation the prime minister led to visit President George HW Bush at the White House. In the group were others such as Dennis Lalor, Mayer Matalon, Roy Collister, Ted Tatham, David Coore, Delroy Lindsay, and Lloyd Goodleigh. It was one of Manley's last acts as PM before he resigned due to ill health in 1992.

Nelson would also come in contact with Sir Alexander Bustamante who, though retired, retained the presidency of the BITU. Nelson used to visit the “Chief”, as Bustamante, was known, at his Irish Town home in the company of Hugh Shearer, Las Beckford and Edith Nelson. But he says he had more functional interaction with Lady Bustamante who was BITU treasurer and who reflected her husband's thinking.

He regards Shearer as his tutor in trade union matters and the two worked closely together right up to the time of Shearer's retirement from public life. “To me, he is the standard of measurement and ideal to which all BITU functionaries aspired,” Nelson reflects.

And he would come to respect Edward Seaga, who would not be accused of being a union-type but who worked with the party/union relationship. “Prior to his becoming the JLP leader, my relationship with Mr Seaga was peripheral. I used to visit Tivoli Gardens with Pearnel Charles and Errol Anderson. But Mr Seaga was a sort of legend that you would not approach, unless you were called,” Nelson relates. After Seaga became leader of the party in 1974, he got to know him better and “developed great respect for his intellect and his concern for poor people”.

Under Seaga, Nelson became a senator at three separate times: 1983-89; 1991, replacing JAG Smith Jr after his conviction for wrongful use of farm workers' money; and again in 2002 after the last general elections.

The Senate gave Nelson the opportunity to further articulate the cause of workers. He speaks reflectively of the 1983-89 stint, at a time when the Parliament had only JLP members, following the PNP boycott of the 1983 polls, on grounds that Seaga had breached solemn electoral promises not to call the election on an old voters' list.

“With all that power in the hands of one party, the Senate could have degenerated into a meaningless forum for rubber-stamping the decisions of the Government,” he says. Instead, the mix of independent and Government senators used the opportunity for deepening democracy. He remembers the role of people like Charles Sinclair, Rev Sam Reid, Professor Errol Miller, Emile George, Dr Lloyd Barnett, Dr Keith Worrell, Dr Ossie Harding, John Issa, Chris Bovell, and Barbara Blake-Hanna.

Economic crunch

But the ride was not a smooth one throughout for Dwight Nelson, and as he grew in the trade union and political movement, disaster struck. In 1992, his wife Pauline nee Gillespie took ill suddenly and died within six days. By then, he had six children — Maurice, Darryl, Kevin, Julius, Kimberley and Sheri-Ann. The four boys were all attending St George's College.

With family responsibilities increasing rapidly, financial pressures threatened to overwhelm him. In 1993, his heart heavy with burden, Nelson resigned the BITU job and accepted an offer from the Matalon group to become director of human resource development for their flagship company, Facey Commodity. His pay jumped from the $7,000 per month take-home from the BITU to $100,000 per month! Nelson recalls how after changing his first pay cheque, “I went back to my office, locked the door, and spread out the cash in front of me — looking at it for a long time.”

But he was still too much of the trade union man and never managed to become comfortable in the job. Inevitably, after about four years, he went back to Shearer to negotiate a return to the BITU and started as a vice-president in 1997. Yet, the time was well spent and he learnt new skills that he was able to use later, both within the BITU and in the larger trade union negotiations.

He recalls that he was one of the first three columnists for the Jamaica Observer newspaper when it began publishing in March 1993 — along with Michael Manley and Barbara Gloudon. The column, called Across the board, was relinquished when he took up the Facey Commodity job.

JCTU and a historic MOU

Back at the BITU, Nelson was placed on the board of directors of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions, which had evolved out of the JTURDC while he was at Facey Commodity, soon becoming a vice-president. It was from the vantage point of the JCTU that he would assume leadership of the effort to craft Jamaica's first government-union MOU. He traced the developments that led to the historic pact, starting with an ominous circular from the Ministry of Finance to all Government department heads, in September 2003.

The circular instructed that all new employment must cease. When the JCTU leaders saw a copy of the circular, they were fuming that it had been sent out without discussions with them or without previously informing the public sector trade unions. The JCTU board immediately mandated Nelson to write the finance minister, demanding a meeting to discuss the matter.

At the meeting, Dr Omar Davies accepted that their complaint was justified but explained why the policy was necessary. Davies also dropped a bombshell. The size of the fiscal deficit demanded that 15,000 public sector jobs be cut!

Prior to this development, the JCTU had, in keeping with a policy prescription from the Geneva-based International Labour Organisation, been moving to develop MOUs with industry, starting with the bauxite-alumina sector. Not wanting to contemplate the loss of 15,000 jobs at a time when the economy was this tight, the union leaders opted for an MOU which would save the jobs and assist the Administration with the fiscal situation. “Three months of tough negotiations followed, but the important thing was that there was total transparency and disclosure during the talks,” Nelson swears.

Treason, betrayal and threats

“During that time, I developed a new level of respect for the finance minister. He brought a level of passion which was not only infectious, but which forced us to negotiate in good faith. It was the first time that the Government and the trade unions had sat down to have such discussions,” Nelson admits. But his candour did not sit well with JLP colleagues, including some Members of Parliament, other functionaries and activists.

Senator Nelson is a member of the highest decision-making machinery of the JLP, including the Annual Conference, the Central Executive and the Standing Committee. In the minds of many of his party colleagues, signing an MOU was tantamount to treason. According to their thinking, Nelson contends, if the Government was forced to cut 15,000 jobs, let it do so and face the resultant social pressure. “My life was threatened for leading these trade union discussions. At one point I thought of seeking the protection of the commissioner of police,” he reveals.

But in the mind of Dwight Nelson, that approach was politically short-sighted. And he underscored “the fact that, unlike days of old, the trade unions, like the BITU, can no longer be dictated to adopt politically partisan positions when they are addressing the business of workers”. Nelson justifies his own thinking on the matter, harking back to the 1985 general strike, the first since the 1938 riots:

“I was there in 1985 when the JLP Government was facing the same problem and made 13,000 public sector employees redundant. I was there in the 1990s when a previous PNP Government made 8,000 public sector workers redundant. And since governments normally play the numbers game, it is always the employees least qualified to find alternative employment who lose their jobs. I had seen the suffering inflicted on these workers and I was not prepared to see it happen again without acting to prevent it.”

A platform for dialogue

Nelson remains convinced of the rightness of the decision by the trade unions and continues to defend it vigorously. “Apart from the redundancies and the suffering, we in the trade union movement subscribe to the policy of social dialogue. Beyond the MOU lies a platform for continuing dialogue between union and Government. It is significant that this MOU has spurred the private sector to examine how they can do something similar to facilitate dialogue between them and the social partners,” Nelson argues.

And how he argues, this elocutionist. Nelson knows nothing more than how to serve: his family, his friends, his fellow men, his party, his country. He has always known that his arrival in the BITU was no accident. Dwight Augustus Nelson is not himself if he does not serve.


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