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POINT AND COUNTER-POINT- From Unionism to Politics: The Making of the United Labour Party (ULP) in Belize?

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Posted: Tuesday, May 11, 2021. 1:46 pm CST.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Breaking Belize News.

By Dorian A. Barrow, Ph.D. Florida State University: As our Unions go into their third week of strike action the million-dollar question is whether the time is finally right for the formation of a viable Third Mass Political Party (The United Labour Party – the ULP) in Belize?  One perspective is that though the wide levels of concern about good governance, political accountability and political/administrative corruption, and the high levels of solidarity among all the unions of the country appear to favour the formation of a sustainable Third Mass Political Party (the ULP) in Belize, the fact that there is little or no support for the movement from the private sector, low levels of support from the general public and absolutely no sympathy from the virtually collapsed tourism sector might, at this time, be mitigating against that possibility.  But as Bishop Philip Wright likes to say in his homilies “hope lives eternal” and we will have to wait and see how this one plays out, since unions have had a history of giving birth to mass political parties.     

The Jamaican Labour Party (the JLP) is a paradigm example of a mass political party born out of unionism.  The JLP was founded on 8th July 1943 by Alexander Bustamante as the political wing of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union in Jamaica.  Bustamante had previously been a member of the PNP.  The JLP went on to win the 1944 general elections in Jamaica with 22 of the 32 seats and went on to win the 1949 elections with a reduced majority. 

At home in Belize we have experienced this phenomenon several times.  Our very own Peoples United Party (The PUP) was founded in 1950 out of the Nationalist Movement, that was led by the General Workers Union (GWU) of Anthony Soberanis Gomez, as an anti-colonial party while the country was ruled by the United Kingdom as British Honduras.  Under George Cadle Price the PUP played a major role in negotiating Belize’s self-government in 1964 and eventual independence in 1981.  The PUP that evolved into a center-left Christian-democratic party, is currently the governing party of Belize after success in the 2020 elections and is now facing off with the unions.

Furthermore, the United Democratic Party, the UDP, that is currently the main opposition party in Belize also has close ties to unionism in Belize.  The first UDP Deputy Prime Minister, the late Hon. Curl Thompson, came to political prominence as the President of the Public Services Union (the PSU), one of the unions currently in the industrial dispute against the State.  The UDP was formed when the main opposition parties, the National Independence Party and the Peoples Development Movement met together with a new Liberal Party to consider forming an alliance to fight the PUP.  The resulting merger formed the United Democratic Party on September 27th 1973.  The UDP, which evolved into a center right conservative party, is currently the main opposition party having lost the 2020 general elections after previously holding the government for three consecutive terms. 

This phenomenon of unionism giving birth to mass political parties is not just an artefact of Belize and countries in the region. It has a much more global reach.  For example, the Republican Party in the United States of America, The GOP, that emerged in 1854 to combat the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the expansion of slavery into the American Territories, in the earlies consisted of Northern Protestants, factory workers, professionals, businessmen, prosperous farmers and after 1866 former black slaves.  In Germany, the German Labour Front (the GUF) was the labour organization under the Nazi Party which replaced the various independent trade unions in Germany during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.  Founded in 1933, they were known as “Hitler’s workers army”.  Though the GUF became defunct in 1945, they have rebranded and are alive today in Germany as the National Socialist Trade and Industry Organization (NSDAP) with over 22 million members.

This was no different in the UK with the Labour Party.  The British Labour Party originated in the early 19th Century meeting the demand for a new political party to represent the interests and needs of the urban working class, a demographic which had increased in number and many of whom only gained suffrage with the passage of the Representation of the People’s Act in 1884. 

So, to me, the question we face in Belize is whether or not there is the demand for a new mass political party to represent the interest and needs of teachers and the public service class of workers, and their families, who are currently facing the Pain Point of a 10% salary cut? 

If that was the only Pain-Point I would say yes.  But regrettably there are other pain-points such as the political party induced high debt-to-GDP ratio that is giving our super-bond creditors more gravitas to insist on the country getting immediately into a strict IMF compliance program, that both mass political parties, the government in power (the PUP) and the opposition party (the UDP), say that they will resist.  But there is also the third pain-point of the virtual collapse of the Tourism Sector which everyone agrees is COVID-19 related, that is causing tremendous pain not only to those in the sector who have lost their jobs because of the global lack of demand for the services they provide, but have also cut off a major revenue stream for the whole country.  Any new mass political party will have to be able to convince us that they can significantly reduce the pain and suffering the country is currently experiencing from all three pain-points in the shortest possible time period.

I think we all agree that there is wide support on three issues: good governance, much more political accountability is urgently needed and we have to stymie political/administrative corruption.  The country and its people are also feeling the pain from three Pain-Points namely a 10% reduction in the wages of teachers and public service workers; a high debt-GDP ratio that is rushing us ever closer to an IMF imperative; and a collapsed Tourism Sector.  For any new mass political party to be successful they will have to have up-front acceptable solutions to these issues.  Our unions who have had a long history of morphing themselves into political entities and lead us through difficult circumstances may have yet another opportunity to do so in 2121.  And I, like Bishop Wright, too believes that “Hope Lives Eternal”. 

Do feel free to challenge any or all of the issues raised in this article and let’s get the conversation on Belize’s 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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