The rise of the “Iron Lady”

Luret Clarkson entered the trade union movement in Grenada in the late 80s as a likeable nurse at a time when the Public Workers Union PWU) was in search of inspiring leadership.

The male domination of the Presidency – the leadership was the culture of the largest public sector union on the island.

Indeed, there were a number of really excellent male Presidents – among them the late Septimus Forsythe, Robert Robinson, Basil Harford, and former Prime Minister, the late Sir Nicholas Brathwaite.

During the 60s, 70s and the period of the 1979-83 Grenada Revolution, these men faced the might of a regime, backed by the gun, and were bold in battling trade union leaders on issues of salary increases among other things.

Virtually unknown and untested in the rigours of the male dominated and controlled labour movement, Luret Clarkson contested the PWU Presidency in 1989 and defeated her male opponent to end more than 50 years of dominance in the top office by a particular gender.

The major challenge she faced was to prove her leadership worth to the thousands of public officers and the wider society and she didn’t disappoint.

As one who served on the PWU executive alongside, Mrs. Clarkson learnt quickly the art and skills of negotiating and mobilising workers to the cause.

More important, she had a vision – she molded a team that was passionate and committed and transformed and upgraded the Union’s Secretariat into a more action-oriented unit.

The Treasurer of the PWU, Alvin St. John had worked in the Accountant General’s Office and applied to join the union and was seconded to work as the full time Executive Secretary and with her team and machinery in place it was vintage Clarkson at work.

She was now in charge of a very visible PWU championing workers issues that was well supported by the overwhelming majority of the membership.

Having served on the Executive throughout Clarkson’s tenure as President, she has to be credited as one of the most outstanding leaders in the nearly one hundred year history of PWU.

In her first term of office 1989 -91, public workers and teachers were aggressive in the negotiations with the Herbert Blaize-led New National Party (NNP) government on salary increases and other benefits.

Clarkson had   by then emerged as part of an awesome and powerful trade union team that included Sister Claris Charles of the Grenada Union of Teachers (GUT) and Senator Chester Humphrey of the Grenada Technical & Allied Workers Union (TAWU).

They conducted joint negotiations with the Blaize government and it was the massive show of workers strength in street protests that forced the administration to agree to what is still the largest salary increase in the last 30 years for public officers.

Clarkson’s presidency had many challenges in the 90s.

First it was the National Democratic Congress (NDC) government of Sir Nicholas Brathwaite in 1990-95 and that was a period of IMF/World Bank influenced debt programme through a Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) to address the need for public service reform, commercialisation of loss making state entities and bodies like Grenlec and other economic challenges.

It should be recalled that our lone power station was unable to provide adequate service to the people of Grenada and had to be commercialised in spite of strong trade union opposition.

The Grenada Bank of Commerce, that was created by the People’s Revolutionary (PRG) was also commercialised as well as other entities.

The public sector unions and more so the PWU were under pressure as the government of the day endeavoured to freeze employment in the public service and reduce spending.

Clarkson’s leadership and personality played a major role in protecting many of the workers’ from losing a lot of their hard earned benefits.

It was the period that pioneered the now infamous Vote 340 which was used to employ contract workers outside of the Public Service Commission (PSC).

Keith Mitchell’s NNP took office in 1995 and within three months one of Clarkson’s early encounters with the Prime Minister was his decision to retire Permanent Secretaries Basil Harford and his wife, Madonna in what he said was the interest of the public.

Prime Minister Mitchell invited the executive of the PWU to a 7.00 a.m. meeting at his office to make his case and he indicated that his perception was that Basil Harford who was then serving as Clark of Parliament was very cold to him.

The aggressive and outspoken Executive Secretary Alvin St. John did not mix words in the meeting and openly accused Prime Minister Mitchell of being wicked and evil to want to take such action.

Mrs. Clarkson’s intervention perhaps saved the meeting. She was motherly and to an extent spiritual in her presentation. Her tone of voice and her articulation were profound, telling the Prime Minister that power is temporary but the goodness of the heart is rewarding.

I will never forget that meeting and more so the Clarkson lecture to Prime Minister Mitchell. He eventually carried out his decision to retire only Basil Harford but left Madonna Harford to continue in the service.

One of Clarkson’s greatest leadership assets was the Legal firm of Henry, Henry and Bristol. The union’s relationship with the late Carol Bristol, QC, was par excellence. He knew the rules and regulations of the Public Service better than the government and provided Clarkson with great legal guidance on numerous issues, including the battle to reinstate the Constitutionally provided for pension of Public Officers.

During the Clarkson Presidency, particularly the first eight years, it was noted for a high level of membership participation and a tremendously active team of Shop Stewards.

The most significant of the many workers’ benefits during the Clarkson reign was Government’s contributions to Workers Health insurance.

The Health plan catered for workers to include their immediate family members and it turned out to be a huge success for the union.

Sister Clarkson’s leadership qualities were highly respected across the Caribbean. I was fortunate to attend several Caribbean Public Service Association meetings with her team and she was a highly respected and popular President.

She also served as President of the Caribbean Public Workers Association and was one of the most sought after regional leaders to deliver an address at those AGMs of CPSA affiliates.

“The Iron Lady” in the trade union movement was also a brilliant public speaker, she was able to captivate audiences with her perspectives on a wide range of social and economic topics.

Mrs. Clarkson had a very huge but simple vocabulary that reached the ordinary man and woman and workers trusted her to make good decisions on their behalf.

She was a very strong influence within the Grenada Trade Union Council and worked with affiliates to find solutions to some of the most difficult employment issues.

Trade Union is never easy because the government often sees it as an opposition, but Clarkson knew the boundaries well and stayed within the lines on the playing field.

As part of her legacy, Mrs. Clarkson led the PWU in negotiations against the Government team for 12 years – many were memorable engagements.

Often times those leading the Government side were people like Cabinet Secretary/Permanent Secretary Meryl Forsyth and Cabinet Secretary Gloria Payne Banfield, and Beryl Isaac who was also a Cabinet Secretary and these three people had a great history of being strong and loyal trade unionists.

The battle for salary increases along with public sector reform raged around the table and at times continued for months and in all of this there was always mutual respect shown to each other regardless of differing opinions.

Sister Clarkson would be remembered by those of us as a trailblazer in the PWU and the wider TUC.

The proof of this legacy is the undeniable fact that she was the person who held the Presidency longer than anyone else.

This is a true reflection of her stewardship to workers and Grenada. Rest in Peace Sister Luret.

Rae Roberts

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