The road to May 29th
[Taken from a forthcoming book, Inside The Rebellion: Dominica 1979]
By William Para Riviere Historian
"Those Who Do Not Remember the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It"
Right to Strike
Government took aim at organized labour, in general, and the threat of C.S.A strike action on June 1st 1979, in particular, by seeking to ban strike action by any way of amendment of existing Industrial Relations legislation. The Industrial Relations (Amendment) Bill, in the first place, redefined the category, "worker," and excluded a host of employee types from the category. Those excluded were public employees, rural and estate constables, teachers and other workers at institutions of higher learning, apprentices and any person responsible for, or has an effective voice in, the formulation of policy in any undertaking or business, or the effective control of the whole or any department of any undertaking or business (118).
Persons so excluded were absolutely prohibited from embarking on strike action, for breach of which a number of sanctions were imposed. An ordinary offender employed at the prison, or in the fire service, the nursing and teaching professions or the public service was upon conviction made liable to a fine of $250 and/or three months' imprisonment. A workers' organization official found guilty of promoting industrial action by such employees were made liable to a fine of $5,000 and/or eighteen months' imprisonment.
Further, strike action was prohibited in "essential services." Defined as essential services were the banana and citrus industries, electricity, telecommunications and public sector services. Severe penalties were imposed on offenders. These included, in respect of a Trade Union official, a fine of $1,000 together with a five-year period of suspension from holding office and/or twelve months' imprisonment. In respect of a non-Union official, the sanction was a fine of $1,000 and/or two years' imprisonment; in respect of a trade union or other such organization of workers, it was a fine of $2,000; and, in respect of an offending employer, it was a fine of $2,000 and/or three years in prison.
Essentially, then, only a small percentage of the nation's organized labour force was permitted under the Bill to take strike action. And, this notwithstanding, a proposed negotiations procedure was undoubtedly calculated to forestall any such course of action by persons entitled to do so. Strike action could not be embarked upon earlier than seven days, or later than fourteen days, either after a dispute was tabled before Government, or after both parties to a dispute had requested arbitration. And, further, where all legal obstacles had been cleared, a strike was permitted only after a secret ballot of members was taken "in the presence of an official of the Ministry responsible for Labour", had authorized such action. In that case, the Bill required both the employer and the Minister to be given "strike notice" before such action was embarked upon.
The truth is that this legal right to strike was more apparent than real. Thus, where, for example, the Minister responsible for Labour "considers that the national interest is threatened or affected thereby", the new enactment obligated the Minister to apply to the Court to grant an injunction where the national interest was thought to be threatened. A person acting in violation of such an injunction was liable to a fine of $1,000 or a term of not more than six months' imprisonment.
That was not all. Unless permission had been obtained from the employer, Union officials or striking workers were prohibited from visiting workers at a bargaining site affected by industrial action. An offending official was made subject to a fine of $1,000 or three months' jail and, an offending non-official, to a fine of $500 or a similar term of imprisonment. Moreover, the right to peaceful picketing was severely circumscribed. In the process of picketing, an individual or group was not allowed to "stand still", or to obstruct persons from freely entering or leaving the picketed premises, or to strike, wound, threaten, abuse or surround any person having any business whatsoever on the premises. And the picketing of the "place of residence of an employer or other person" was strictly prohibited. For breach, a fine of $500 or a term of not more than six months' imprisonment was imposed.
The Industrial Relations (Amendment) Bill also made it exceedingly difficult for participants to sustain strike action for long. It was declared an offence punishable by a fine of $1,000 and/or eighteen months' imprisonment for persons to make financial contributions "directly or indirectly" to an alleged industrial action. A fine of $2,000 was imposed on a Union or other worker organization found guilty of accepting such assistance and, a fine of $500 and/or a year's imprisonment, on a Union official. An offending worker or other person was liable to a $250 fine and/or three months' jail.
The legislation left an impression that workers' rights were being protected from erosion by their employers. It did so by providing that the stipulations directed against strike action applied equally to 'lock-outs' by employers. Further, the negotiation procedure preceeding such ultimate action applied equally to both parties to a dispute. And not only trade unions and employees, but employers as well, were made liable to punishment for violation of the law.
In fact, these provisions were intended not to protect the worker but, rather, to obstruct the willingness of employers to support, if not initiate, action taken by employees. Government knew fully well that the overwhelming body of the business sector wanted its removal from office. And it was no secret that, particularly since the advent of John to the Premiership, employers had stood in full support of industrial action taken by the working class, their employees. This, they did even at the expense in the short term of their profits. Most importantly, when civil servants went on strike, as they had done recently, a lock-out by employers in the private sector would not only affect Government in the long term by hurting an already depressed economy but would, in the immediate short term, provide workers in the private sector with clearance to demonstrate solidarity with their counterparts in the public service. And the imposition of a fine of $2,000 on an employer found guilty of contributing financially to an illegal strike in an essential service clearly did not seek to protect the rights of workers. Rather, its intention was to curtail that right. The regime certainly had not forgotten the critical role played by employers in financially sustaining the 47-day public service strike in 1977.
Right to Freedom of Speech
Just as the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Bill aimed at frustrating industrial action, especially within the public sector, so, too, the Libel and Slander (Amendment) Bill proposed by the John administration sought to stifle newspaper criticism of Government and its officials. The central purpose of the Bill was to identify by name, and with a view to taking legal action against them, persons who made public statements critical of conduct by Government officials in running the affairs of State. Two categories within which such officials might fall were, firstly, "any person in his professional or official capacity" and, secondly. "any person" criticism of whose conduct "may have the effect of lowering that person in the estimation of others." Of course, to institute proceedings against anyone taking such officials to task, the actual name of the critic was required.
The Libel and Slander (Amendment) Bill permitted newspapers to publish statements concerning both classifications of persons on two conditions. One was that the writer indicate at the start of his or her statement "as to whether the article is political or other comment, or purports to be factual." The other condition was that the newspaper publish "the actual name of the correspondent or the writer of the article." Further, where the contents of the article were not perceived by the victim to be "libelous," he or she was given the right to submit an appropriate reply which the newspaper in question was obligated to publish "without amendment". In the event, however, that the article was thought to be libelous, the aggrieved party was empowered to petition the Court to require the newspaper's Editor to reveal the name of the writer. The writer might then be cited as co-defendant with the Editor. Or separate proceedings might be instituted against the writer. Failure of the Editor to reveal the writer's name was made an offence punishable by a fine of $1,000 or a term of six months' imprisonment (119).
To be noted is that the legislation sought to penalize not just newspaper editors and contributors to newspapers but, as well, every member of the newspaper's Board of Directors. Directors were made liable "jointly and severally" for any and all damages and costs imposed by the Court.
Efforts by the Trade Unions to persuade Government to re-consider its intention to bring both Bills before the House on May 29th proved fruitless. In the morning of May 22nd, on instructions from Industrial Relations Minister, Randolph Bannis, a copy of the proposed measure was served on each of the worker organisations for perusal, with a note inviting them to a meeting to discuss the same at half-past-two in the afternoon of the same day. On receipt, the Unions promptly informed the Minister by telephone that attendance by them was not feasible at such short notice, for the reason that a pre-condition for any such attendance was prior discussion with the Unions' Executive Committees. The telephone conversations were followed by letters acknowledging that the Minister's letter of invitation was received between 9 o'clock and 10 o'clock that day and that, in the circumstances, a postponement of the meeting was proper. Further, the response by the invitees noted that the Bill was "inimical to the best interest" of Trade Unions, as its provisions would frustrate their operations. The Unions requested of the Minister that Government not proceed with enactment of the Bill, in so far as its contents might well be construed as an "open invitation to industrial unrest in this country" (120). The proposed meeting was postponed to May 24th.
The meeting produced stalemate. The Unions maintained their strong objections to the amendment of the Industrial Relations Act, as proposed. It was re-iterated that the measure, if amended, would impose "unnecessary restrictions upon freedom of association" in the trade union movement. The Attorney General, the Labour Commissioner and a Legal Advisor to Minister Bannis stuck to Government's position; Minister Bannis himself sat in on behalf of Government. The position was unchanged, namely, that on May 29th 1979, the Bill would be debated in the House. In the event, C.S.A General Secretary Savarin implored Attorney General Austin to convey a three-fold message to Prime Minister John: one, the Unions strongly opposed the Bill; two, industrial unrest would follow its passage; and, three, Government ought not to pass the proposed measure at this time (121).
Copyright © William Para Riviere, 2015