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Reflecting on the Struggles of Vincentian Workers

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As we get ready to commemorate another Workers’ Day, it is important that we reflect a bit on the struggle of Vincentian workers. When we think of the struggles of Vincentian workers we often look back to the George Charles’ led United Workers and Ratepayers Union (UWRPU) that swept into power with the advent of Adult Suffrage in 1951 and the 1952 Joshua’s Federated Industrial Agricultural Workers Union (FIAWU). With the split between Charles and Joshua soon after the historic victory of the Eighth Army, the UWPRU gave way to the FIAWU and Joshua dominated the scene as Union and Political leader.{{more}} But in order to make sense of all of this we need to go back further. May Day (Workers’ Day) that we celebrated at one time on the first Monday in May and now on the first of May arose out of the struggle for an 8 hour working day in the United States, a struggle that climaxed on May 1, 1886, with an historic strike and rally in Chicago. Theirs was a different kind of struggle based, of course, on a different socio-economic and political climate. Really, the struggle of Vincentian workers goes back to the period of slavery when the very humanity of the African slaves was denied in a system that gave ownership of the person and labour of the slaves to the plantation owner. Emancipation was primarily a legal façade under a system that tried to recreate the conditions of slavery to the extent that it was possible to do so. The workers, then legally free, continued their struggle, admittedly under conditions different from slavery, to secure the freedom they were denied in 1838.

Working class unrest manifested itself periodically after slavery and reached an alarming stage in the latter part of the 19th century when the plantation system faced collapse by the problems besetting the sugar industry and the fear of workers unrest. Riots in 1862 rocked the plantations on the windward part of the island. With sugar virtually dead, following the 1898 hurricane and 1902 volcanic eruption, the colonial administration had no alternative but to introduce a land settlement scheme in an effort to create or rather to further develop a peasantry that had begun to emerge. Although there were struggles by workers, there was no movement. In the second decade of the 20th century a local branch of the Garvey movement with branches in Stubbs and Lowmans Leeward made efforts to build the consciousness of workers. This organisation, however, appeared to have disintegrated by the 1920s, even though Marcus Garvey remained a popular personality, as can be seen when he visited this country twice in 1937.

It was not until the formation of the St.Vincent Workingmen’s Association in 1936 that an organisation appeared that attempted to embrace and voice the concerns of the working people. This was an off-shoot of that period in 1935 when the workers of this country, through their riots of October 21 and 22nd, had begun to reset the colony’s agenda. When McIntosh and his colleagues launched this new organisation in 1936 they had little option but to register it as a limited liability company because of the inadequacy of the existing Trade Union legislation. The new organisation tried to be broad in its objectives and to cater to all aspects of the lives of the working people. Even before they made their entry into the Legislative Council, they began to present issues relevant to the conditions of workers to the administration. On August 3, 1936, about three thousand workers marched from the Market Square to the Victoria Park, led by the Association ‘s band and singing “Toilers of the nation”. Something had happened that lifted their consciousness when they confronted the administration at the Court Yard on October 21, 1935.The St.Vincent Workingmen’s Association used its presence in the Legislative Council to push issues relevant to workers. One of the early ones had to do with the appointment of a Labour Commissioner, since they realised that there were matters related to labour that needed investigating. They were indeed conscious of the lack of adequate machinery to address the grievances of workers. Although interventions were made with employers and the government on behalf of workers, it was not until the 1940s that efforts were made to form unions. A labour conference held by the Association in 1940 attracted 58 delegates from throughout the island. McIntosh, President of the Workingmen’s Association, and St.Clair Bonadie, the Secretary, represented the Association at the September 1945 founding meeting of the Caribbean Congress of Labour held in Barbados. Among the resolutions passed at that meeting was one calling on governments in the region to declare May 1 as Labour Day and to make it a national holiday. McIntosh informed the meeting that there was a strong labour movement in St.Vincent but without a registered union. He enquired of the Conference whether they should concentrate on building one. This might have influenced the efforts made in 1946. Two unions were registered at the beginning of the year, and by the middle of the year a third was formed. By 1947 the St.Vincent Peasant Cultivators Union had a membership of 284, the St.Vincent General Workers Union 472 and the St.Vincent Growers Union 50.

Between 1937 and 1950, when the Workingmen’s Association dominated the Legislative Council, a number of pieces of legislation dealing with the minimum wage, workers compensation, the 1939 Trade Union Amendment Ordinance, the 1950 Trade Unions and Trade Disputes Ordinance, legislation centred around the establishment of a Labour Department and other related pieces of labour legislation were passed. Total credit cannot be given to McIntosh and the other members of the Legislative Council for following the disturbances that rocked most of the English speaking Caribbean colonies in the 1930s, the British Government realised that it had to reset the colonial agenda and place issues pertaining to the workers on its agenda.

The Vincentian newspaper which in 1950 was not known for its sympathy with the plight of workers stated that the Trade Union movement in St.Vincent appeared not to have made reasonable progress. The efforts of McIntosh’s Labour party were focused on the struggle within the Legislative Council at the expense of serious work in organising the movement. All of that changed when the United Workers Peasants and Rate Payers Union announced itself to the public with a massive march and rally on May Day 1951. Even the Employers and Planters Class recognised the changed situation. This was reflected in a statement Mr. O.W Forde made to his fellow planters: “We must accept the view that Trade Unions are here to stay. We must accept a change of heart and win the cooperation of those who work for us if we cannot get accustomed to the idea that the pendulum of time has swung the other way.” While McIntosh and the other members of his Association functioned in a climate marked by inadequate Trade Union and workers legislation, by 1951 partly through their advocacy labour legislation had been modernised making it easier for unions to fight outside of the Legislature on behalf of their members. Today Workers’ Day appears to have little meaning to a movement that has become politically strangled, with members divided politically and seeing their fate tied up with their political parties rather than with their unions. This year efforts are being made to heighten activities on May 1. It is left to be seen what will happen.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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