By Justin L Simon QC
With your leave, Ladies and Gentlemen, I begin my tribute to Sir Keithlyn Smith with the immortal words of Khalil Gibran, the world renowned Lebanese poet and philosopher, as he spoke of Friendship:
“When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the ‘nay’ in your own mind, nor do you withhold the ‘ay’.
For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed.
[And] when you part from your friend, you grieve not; For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain”.
We are gathered here as friends of Sir Keithlyn Smith to pay tribute to him who has passed to the world beyond, and to speak of him, like he has never left us, as now in his silence we are more appreciative of the man he was, and we recognize that the memories of him will forever be with us all. The memories shared earlier here have been varied but they have all caught the essence of Sir Keithlyn’s engaging and lasting friendship with us all.
Sir Keithlyn always spoke his mind clearly and forcibly, even to his friends, and he was relentless in his pursuit of justice for the working class. In a real sense, he was one of the foundation rocks on which the Antigua & Barbuda Workers Union was built and stands strong today.
My last memorable encounter with Sir Keithlyn Smith was right here in Freedom Hall when I stood before the union members one day in the month of October 2018 and pleaded for their vote in support of the proposal to replace the London-based Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice (the CCJ) at the soon-to-be- held referendum on November 6, 2018. Sir Keithlyn, the Antigua & Barbuda Workers Union’s General Secretary from 1970 to 2002, stood up boldly in the audience interrupting my plea, and shouted “No, never. CCJ nah ready yet. Ah we ah tap with the Privy Council”.
Though I did not agree with him, I understood his passionate stance. It had everything to do with his conviction built over those 32 years that the legal rights of workers were ultimately in better hands with the Privy Council as our highest appellate court. And, to date, the only union that has tested the judicial waters of that final appellate court is the AWU, now re-named the A&BWU.
Allow me to take you back to December 23, 1983 when, in the excitement of Christmas preparations, Sir Keithlyn, then secretary of the union, called the workers in four hotels out on strike when negotiations over a new collective agreement broke down. Upon my legal advice, the strike was called off on Christmas Day because the matter had been referred to the Industrial Court by the then Minister of Labour on the 24th. But the employers were only willing to re-engage the workers under new contracts of employment, as they considered the employees had abandoned their jobs because of their strike action.
Sir Keithlyn was adamant that there would be no bowing down to the demands of the Antigua Hotel and Tourist Association, and he instructed that legal action be immediately commenced in the High Court for breach of contract. Subsequently, the union filed a claim for unfair dismissal in the Industrial Court following the hotel’s’ dismissal of the workers on the ground that they had participated in an illegal strike. The union was victorious in both courts. But on appeal from the Industrial Court’s decision, the Court of Appeal found for the hotels and, adding fuel to the fire, refused leave to the union to appeal to the Privy Council.
Disheartened, but not giving up the fight, Sir Keithlyn insisted that I make contact with Queen’s Counsel Dr Fenton Ramsahoye (former AG of Guyana, my senior lecturer at the Sir Hugh Wooding Law School, and a constitutional legal giant), to take the matter up directly with the Privy Council. The entire court process took a long time, and it was not until February 1st 1993, some nine years after that strike action, that the Privy Council handed down its decision: firstly that an appeal to the Privy Council from the Court of Appeal is as of right on Industrial Court matters, and should not have been denied; and secondly upholding the Industrial Court’s finding that the hotel workers’ dismissals were in fact unfair and they were therefore entitled to compensation. Gathering the necessary evidence, choosing the witnesses, compiling the documents, and constantly reassuring the workers, Sir Keithlyn remained involved throughout the process. And thus began my long association with the Antigua Workers Union, and my friendship with Sir Keithlyn.
Sir Keithlyn’s negotiations with employers on behalf of workers and his many representations of workers at the Industrial Court has been an ongoing mission for him. The opening of the doors to the Privy Council has seen at least three more appeals successfully adjudicated by the Antigua and Barbuda Workers Union against other big guns: including pension calculations for waterfront workers employed by George Bennet Bryson & Co. Ltd; ensuring favourable terms and conditions for stevedores in their Collective Agreements with the Port Authority; and full severance payment for 47 employees of Cable & Wireless, brought in the name of Conrad Tonge, who sadly passed away before the Privy Council decision was announced.
Having read the Life and Times of Samuel Smith in the two series of “To Shoot Hard Labour”, authored by Sir Keithlyn and his brother Fernando, I understood Sir Keithlyn’s passion to fight for his fellow men and women – those of the working class who suffered so much for so long and whose grueling hard work beginning in the sugar fields were rewarded with so little. As Papa Sammy Smith is quoted as saying:
“If we do not do something to help someone when we can, if we do not work hard to lay a good foundation for the coming generation, our tenure in this life would be useless”.
I strongly suspect that that was Sir Keithlyn’s life motto.
His book “No Easy Push-o-ver” published in 1994 provides an 1886 – 1994 historical, sometimes emotional, account of the formation of the Antigua Trades & Labour Union; AT&LU’s relentless fight (literally and metaphorically) in the early years with the established white plantocracy; the subsequent acrimonious infighting which resulted in the break-away of some of its leading members to form the Antigua Workers Union; the trials and tribulations of the first-formed political parties in these early days; the steady determination of the AWU to make its presence felt and recognized despite the odds it faced; and the leadership role played by our early women pioneers in the fields of universal education (Nelly Robinson), vocational training (Lila Simon), trade union activities (Peggy Arrindell and Earnie Dyer), and social work (Ruth Ambrose and Gwen Tonge). Sir Keithlyn was a part of that struggle, and his three books should be “a must read” at our schools as they speak of our history and real life hard experiences, not through the eyes of colonial settlers and visiting foreigners, but through the eyes of ‘we ourselves’.
That Sir Keithlyn has made a significant contribution to our nation’s growth and development cannot be denied. His selfless commitment and contribution to the Antigua and Barbuda Workers Union has been outstanding. His national recognition was definitely merited.
As I extend heartfelt sympathy to his wife Evelyn Lady Smith, his four children, and his relatives and friends, I take my leave with parting words from Khalil Gibran:
“When you are sorrowful look deep in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
When you are joyous, look again in your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.”
May his soul rest in eternal peace!