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POINT AND COUNTER-POINT-Unionism in Belize:The BNTU and The Nationalist Movement

Posted: Monday, April 12, 2021. 1:44 pm CST.


Unionism in Belize:  The BNTU and The Nationalist Movement

By Dorian A. Barrow, Ph.D., Florida State University: Unionism has been one of the main life blood streams that has fuel national sustainable development in Belize.  Our many unions over the years have been at the fountain-head of national life in the best of times, and the worst of times, and they have always been instrumental in leading the country especially through turbulent times.  Recently, the Belize National Teachers Union (the BNTU), for all intent and purposes, has almost single-handedly taken over that leadership position, by getting into several confrontations with national Governments over things like cost of living increases versus salary and benefits, matters of good governance, transparency and accountability, and other public affairs including immigration, the signing of the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), the accession to the third senator in the National Assembly and the reactivation of the Integrity Commission.   The question is can they come through for us this time around as the country spirals from a crippling global pandemic where the demands for goods and services are high, the supply is low, and the much-needed money to pay teachers and government workers is in very short supply.  Probably at no time in the BNTU’s history has this line from the union’s prayer which says: “Where there is despair in life, let us bring hope”, been so relevant, and meaningful, for we the workers of Belize who need that hope now more than ever.  

With the ability to mobilize thousands of Belizeans for protest and strikes, the BNTU has long established itself as a force that no Government administration of the day can ignore. They have rightfully earned the reputation as an activist union that is not only concerned about the welfare of teachers but also public affairs, consistent with many of our great unions since the 1930s and 1940s.  During those pre-BNTU years, three clusters of unions played important roles in securing a place for unions in national life.  One group consisted of working-class individuals and emphasized labour issues.  This group originated with Antonio Soberanis Gomez and the Labourers and Unemployed Association (LUA) between 1934 and 1937 and continued through the General Workers Union (GWU).  The second group, a radical black nationalist movement, emerged during World War II.  Its leaders came from the LUA and the local branch of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).  This group called itself various names, including the Peoples National Committee.  The third group consisted of people such as the Christian Social Action Group that engaged itself in the political life of the country within the narrow limits defined at that time by the constitution.  It was from this latter grouping that the BNTU emerged.

Before July 1970 there were two separate teachers’ organizations known as the British Honduras Union of Teachers (BHUT) and the Catholic Education Association (CEA).  On July 20th ,1970, the teachers of Belize felt the need to have one union of teachers and so the Catholic Education Association was “dissolved” and its members were amalgamated into the British Honduras Union of Teachers (BHUT).  The new body was then known as the National Teachers Union (NTU).  In 1976 a new constitution was adopted and the name changed to its present name of BNTU.  The mission of the new organization became to promote and advance the highest levels of professional service and to achieve the best possible standards of education and quality of life for all our people.  The BNTU from way back then viewed itself as the organization that would aspire to promote and maintain the highest and best “conditions of work for the development of Belize”.  For that the BNTU has gotten into several confrontations with national Governments.

The latest one is over the proposed salary pay cuts of 10% to teachers and public service workers.  The BNTU is doing this in conjunction with other unions forming the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB), an organization that it was instrumental in forming.  The National Trade Union Congress of Belize was first formed and organized on Monday 11th July, 1966, at a meeting held at the Riverside Hall in Belize City.  At the time three unions – the Public Officers Union (POU), now the PSU headed by President Edney Cain, the British Honduras Union of Teachers (BHUT – then the only non-Catholic teachers’ union, now the BNTU) headed by then President Alvan Cadle and the General Workers Development Union (GWOU) headed by then President Steve Longsworth, signed the document giving birth and legality to the NTUCB.  This historic meeting and signing of a 14-point instrument of agreement was witnessed by trade union officials from all over the world including representative from the Postal Telegraph and Telephone International (PTTI) union.  Nick Pollard has argued that the formation of the Trade Union Congress of Belize in 1966 marked “… the beginning of a new cold war between the Catholic Unions and the Non-Catholic Unions with Price and Pollard on the Catholic side and Goldson et others on the Anglican/Protestant side.”  Today it is like history is repeating itself as Price went on to form the first PUP Government and the Catholic Teachers’ Union was in 1970 ‘dissolved’ to give birth to the BNTU.  The two protagonists in today’s fight over the proposed salary cuts is again a PUP Government and the BNTU.

So, as you can see, the BNTU has long established itself as force that no Government administration of the day can ignore.  Probably the biggest success that the BNTU can boast to date is their 11-day protest from October 2016 when they forced the then Prime Minister Dean Barrow to agree to its demands for a Senate hearings on Immigration, the reactivation of the Integrity Commission, the accession to the 13th Senator in the National Assembly and to sign UNCAC, the Anti-corruption treaty of the United Nation.  The BNTU is strategizing about what they will do now to force the Government of the Honourable John Briceno to agree to its demands for the GOB to abandon its planned 10% salary cuts for teachers and public service workers.  One thing history has taught us that is our unions have never lost a just fight against any Government administration in this country whether it be the colonial Government, the UDP Government, and now a PUP Government.  As my Dad would say, if I was a betting man I would be putting my money on the BNTU in this fight.  I would put my money on them too!

Do feel free to challenge any or all of the views expressed in this column and let’s get the critical discussion on national sustainable development going.            

Dr. Dorian Barrow is currently working at Galen University as the Dean of the Department of Education. He has a long history of involvement in education in Belize, having served as a Lecturer at the University of Belize, and as Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Education. Dr. Barrow is an eminent professional who is well respected both locally and abroad. He is serving as an editorial member and reviewer of several international reputed journals and has authored many research articles/books related to education. Apart from education, he is also a sports enthusiast.


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