Volume 9 Number 6
The Man They Couldn't Silence
01 December 1996

Jamaican trade union leader Eddie Bailey is not afraid to stand up for what he believes - although it nearly cost him his life.
He tells his story to Martin Henry.

The first bullet slammed into his chest barely missing his heart. The second grazed his left index finger and tore through a pouch in his hand. The third, aimed at his head, grazed his eyebrow.

A contract killer was shooting to kill Eddie Bailey, a Jamaican customs officer, in the small hours of a Saturday morning in July 1980.

That Monday, the male companion of a woman he had intercepted in her scheme to defraud customs had told him, with a string of expletives, `You have done a good job today and you are going to get your pay.' Pay day arrived as he got out of his car at his gate after a pleasant evening of relaxation with friends.

Bailey screamed, `I'm going to kill you!' and charged at his attacker who broke and ran, firing wildly. Bailey called to his wife to stay inside and drove himself to his brother Eric's house a mile away. His sister-in-law was a nursing sister at the University of the West Indies hospital and her personal intervention brought quick attention. His doctors said that they couldn't understand why he was still alive.

Bailey is convinced that he only survived because of divine intervention. At the time, he says, he was determined not to lose consciousness, because he felt that if he did, he would never regain it.

Now President of the Jamaican Civil Service Association (JCSA), one of the country's most powerful trade unions, Eddie Bailey is one of ten children. His father, a railway stationmaster who died last August aged 98, was a Methodist lay preacher. Three of the children have entered the Christian ministry and a daughter is married to a minister. Eddie himself considered the ministry as a young person, but was disillusioned by a pastor whose `negative human side' he witnessed.

The Bailey children learnt lessons of honesty and integrity at an early age. Morning prayers were a feature of their home - even on Sundays, when they also went to church.

Eddie Bailey joined the Customs Department in 1961. Low salaries and poor working conditions, coupled with high customs duties, have traditionally made the department a centre of corruption. Not only does it take firm moral resolve to stand against the flow, but, as his experience shows, resistance can also be dangerous.

One large importer openly admitted to Bailey that he was arranging the killing of another customs officer who was `spoiling his business'. Bailey quietly explained that the officer was only doing his job with integrity and secured a gentleman's agreement that the murder plan would not be carried out. In his view it would only have complicated the issue, and put more people at risk, if he had reported the matter to the police, who are themselves open to corruption.

Corruption is endemic in Jamaica, at a time when the economy is being liberalized and downsizing has led to substantial job losses. The civil service itself is noted for selling favours. The criminals and his own colleagues have both found Bailey too honest and too threatening to be allowed to prosper.

Bailey spent ten days in hospital after the murder attempt. The night after he was discharged, gunmen turned up at the hospital asking for him. He believes he can identify his attacker, but he has never reported him to the police - for fear that the police might execute him extra-judicially, without a fair trial.

After his recovery, Bailey was offered a transfer from Customs by the Collector-General, but said he would resign if he was transferred. He felt that if he yielded to intimidation, he would only place his honest colleagues at greater risk.

Three years later he was transferred to the Ministry of Education. Officially this was a promotion - but when he got to the Ministry of Education, he found he had no desk and no job. Stories were spread that he had been living beyond his means as a customs officer, and must therefore have been receiving favours. But there was no formal accusation. He was encouraged to resign - but refused to do so.

Instead, he channelled his energy into the work of the staff association at the Ministry and became the Ministry's representative on the Executive of the JCSA. In 1989, the president of the JCSA invited him to run as vice-president on his ticket. However, on the urging of other colleagues, he decided to run for the presidency itself. His rival asked for a clean campaign.

In the midst of the campaign, the police picked Bailey up on a Friday afternoon at a cricket test match. He was accused of fraud in signing payment orders at the Ministry of Education. In spite of the obvious intention that he should spend the weekend in jail, he was released, thanks to a friend in the police force who guaranteed his bail.

Bailey's brother and sister went to break the news to his father, who was then 90. `Eddie is not going to do anything he cannot admit,' responded the patriarch. `I am sorry for his accuser for Eddie is my most determined child and he is not going to give up.'

The case was thrown out of court. During the trial, Bailey was suspended on one-quarter-pay, which imposed great hardship on his wife and two sons. He sued the government, but, seven years on, the case has not yet been tried.

Bailey re-entered the presidential race in 1990 and won a sweeping victory. He has been re-elected every year since then. The presidency is an unpaid position with only a small honorarium. Bailey has taken a lateral transfer from the Ministry of Education to the Civil Aviation Authority with no room for promotion, in order to be able to devote his time to the JCSA's social and trade union work.

The JCSA represents most workers in the mainstream civil service and has some 30,000 to 40,000 members. In the past, it has been able to hold the country to ransom through work stoppages. Bailey's leadership has seen an easing of tensions and this year's salary negotiations were satisfactorily concluded without the usual disruptions. Despite the bitterness of the JCSA 1989 election campaign, Bailey has called upon the skills of his opponent in several negotiations.

Bailey's presidency has seen the revitalization of the JCSA, moves towards greater accountability in the civil service and an improvement in the working conditions and salaries of its members. He wants to see the civil service become an effective instrument for national development, and believes the JCSA has a major role in this. He is also President of the Caribbean Public Services Association and Vice-President of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions.

Bailey is not the only public servant in Jamaica to have faced an assassination attempt because of his honesty. Looking back, he says, `I am not supposed to be alive. Why was I spared? I have been searching ever since for the answer.'
Martin Henry

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