The union lion
George Harold Alexander Frazier is not a saint. We don’t know of any. But for the better part of the last three decades he has been the firebrand union activist, the general secretary of the largest, most militant union in all the land – the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU). He has seen union presidents come, and he has seen union presidents go, but he has remained: the one constant through it all.
George Frazier, now 65 and now only a shard of his old self, will retire at the end of July. He still has the unmistakable gait but slower, and the voice is not the same, but the intensity and clarity of thought is as keen as ever.
On the Opposition radio station’s morning show a week or so ago, the co-hosts badgered him, tried to get him to say things indiscreet. But the wily fellow was having none of it. But he did say this, and no one in the rest of the media picked it up – teachers and public officers were demanding a raise from government, and that starting in June they were giving Belmopan three months to deliver. “If not, we will take it to the next level,” he declared.
There is a fair chance that the old lion had gotten caught up and was having flashbacks to earlier times when his roaring commanded hundreds, sometimes thousands. We will concede that. But this is as experienced a union man as there is; he is not so easily trapped. Plus it’s been almost 10 years since the last pay raise for teachers. With cost of living going through the roof, teachers and public officers must be getting a trifle restless.
The George Frazier we know was no fast-talking salesman. He was fearless; he backed up his chat. Ant it didn’t matter which government was in. He was going to bring it, and bring it hard. He had humbled the UDP leading up to the 1998 elections, and he along with other leaders in the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB), for a few weeks in January and early February of 2005, almost brought the PUP government to its knees.
In January of 2005 the conditions for a perfect storm were looming. The Senate Special Select Committee was exposing for world and country to see that some senior skullduggery had taken place at the DFC and SSB in the PUP’s first term. And now the people were being forced to pay for all the mismanagement and corruption. They were not happy; in fact they were downright angry.
Just two years earlier the leaders in Belmopan had taken teachers and public officers for fools. They had taken away with one hand what they had given them with the other. They had increased Social Security contributions just two months after giving them a pay raise – 8% and 5 % for junior and senior teachers and officers respectively, for each of the next three years. The increased Social Security contributions essentially wiped out their raise.
While the teachers and public officers protested against the Social Security increases outside the National Assembly in 2003, inside, the government, in cahoots with the opposition UDP, was raising their own pay by in excess of 300 percent. Cabinet Ministers were now making $90,000 a year. The PUP’s arrogance was becoming insufferable.
It is against this backdrop of cynicism and righteous indignation that Said Musa announced in his January 21, 2005 Budget speech that he was extracting $91 million in new tax revenue from the people, and he was going to stagger the last year of the pay raise for teachers and public officers over a three-year period.
This was a Prime Minister who was losing his moral authority to govern. Add the fact that he had just three weeks earlier shattered the Southside with the removal and the resignation from the Cabinet of the only two PUP area representatives on the Southside, Mark Espat and Cordel Hyde respectively, and the streets were not pleased. Things had begun to bubble.
But George Frazier’s reputation took a hit the afternoon of Thursday, February 3, 2005.
Teachers and public officers, joined by students and businesspersons, were preparing for a massive shutdown of the country the following day, Friday, February 4, 2005. It was the culmination of two weeks of non-stop agitation – the constituency offices of two Orange Walk Ministers had been burnt, in Belize City the Women’s Department had been set afire, and in Cayo, a police booth was destroyed by flames.
Thousands of teachers and students across the country had been out of school for an unprecedented 11 straight days. Businesses were closing in solidarity, as many as 159 businesses on one day. BTL and BEL workers were out of office and in the streets. BWSL was turning on the pipes for just a few hours each day.
The consensus was that the planned nationwide shutdown was going to spell big, big trouble for the government. The government had been hemorrhaging ever since the year begun. There was revolutionary talk in the streets.
The teachers, since January 21, had become a clear and present danger to the government. They had the full support of the masses.
And then the BNTU’s Council of Management blinked. Eight out of 10 of their branches, with the exception of Belmopan and Belize City, voted to accept the government’s offer to pay them their full raise starting April 1, 2005, and to delay the implementation of the new taxes by one month to allow for further dialogue. The Council of Management was asking all teachers to return to the classroom the following day, Friday, February 4. Incredibly, the branch presidents voted on the government’s offer without taking it back to their membership.
Something was amiss. The result was fiery public exchanges between teachers and their leadership. Many teachers still showed up for the Friday demonstration, but they felt betrayed. The teachers were divided. By Monday, February 7, they had returned to the classroom, after an unprecedented 12-day strike. The NTUCB soldiered on, but without the teachers the government had dodged a bullet.
George Frazier in an interview on KREM RADIO yesterday, Wednesday, said that back in those fateful weeks early in 2005, their lives were in danger. He recounted that on a trip to Orange Walk for a meeting one night, one of the rear wheels on their BNTU vehicle flew off. When they checked the nuts on the other rear wheel it was clear it had been tampered with: all the nuts were loose.
The matter was never reported, and as far as we recall, it never made the nightly news. For sure, some people won’t believe the old lion. He still has his detractors. But these were not ordinary times, and the government was desperate. We have seen that people in power cling to power, oftentimes by any means necessary.
George Frazier is a lion. Straight like that. In his prime none could compare. We can’t say what exactly led to the BNTU’s Council of Management surrendering. Was it selfishness? Was it fear? Greed? Partisan politics? We can’t say.
In the strict order of things, George Frazier was the executive secretary of the BNTU. He was an employee of its Council of Management. He took his orders from them. But the gangly George had become, in a sense, larger than life. So it was easy for us to believe it was the other way around. But on that fateful Thursday back in February 2005, that wasn’t the case. It is written.