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Another Labour Day – same old story!

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I searched last weekend’s newspapers seeking information about activities for May 1, the Labour Day holiday. I found nothing. Has the leadership of the Trade Union Movement allowed another Labour Day to slip by without using the occasion to highlight the plight of workers? The Teachers’ Union has a case involving three of its teachers before the court. I hope the strategy is not just to sit back and hope that the court will rule in their favour.{{more}} I am sure that there are many other issues around that need to be highlighted and May 1 is a good time to do so. But the truth is that there is no unity in the ranks of the Movement. Moreover, if there are activities to commemorate the day, one suspects that the only persons who are going to be present will be the leadership and we cannot even be sure about this. Do we remember 1975 when teachers and other public servants were active, fighting to protect the rights not only of themselves, but of all other workers? Those were high points in the history of the Trade Union Movement.

It was at a meeting held in Barbados in 1945 that gave rise to the Caribbean Congress of Labour, at which the call was made to governments to declare May 1 a public holiday. The first Labour Day in SVG was celebrated in 1951, which means that on Wednesday we should have celebrated its 62nd anniversary. On April 30, 1951, there was excitement as workers readied themselves for what was to them an important day. On May 1 they assembled at the King George V Playing Field, which now houses the E.T. Joshua airport. Following a joint Anglican/Methodist church service, “the crowd which had grown to about 2,000, headed by their leader wearing evening dress with a six-inch scarlet red sarong across his shoulders and bearing a wooden sword marched to the tune of two brass bands all the way to Victoria Park singing patriotic songs”(The Vincentian, May 5). Admittedly the atmosphere would have been made more excited by the fact that the country was on the eve of the first election under Adult Suffrage that would have allowed workers to vote for the first time. The leader of the recently formed United Workers Peasants and Ratepayers Union had promised then to fill all the seats in the Legislative Council in the upcoming elections.

This drew scepticism from the Registrar of the Supreme Court who felt that the persons he saw were incapable of holding their own in ‘a fair-to-middling debate’ and would be completely at sea on “questions of any technical significance.” What was reflected here was a fear of the awakening of workers. In fact, in that same year O. W. Forde, lawyer and owner of a plantation, had issued a warning to his fellow planters, urging them to adjust to the realities that faced them. He stated, “We must accept the view that Trade Unions are here to stay. We must also accept the fact that Adult Suffrage is also 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.”

It is ironic too that the period of crowning glory, when Adult Suffrage allowed workers to look beyond the confines of their work place, really signalled a period of decline. For a while the Trade Union Movement remained relatively strong, but what was emerging, as was manifested later, was a case of split loyalty with the growth of political parties. Once any attempt was made to analyse the context within which the unions operated, identifying the forces that impacted on the rights of workers, the politicians became alarmed. In 1977, the Ministry of Education cancelled a workshop held jointly by the SVUT and the Canadian Federation of Teachers because the Minister who was at the opening of the workshop took exception to a comment the president of the Union made about the operations of multinationals in the region. Unions began to concentrate too narrowly on the workplace and did not pay as much attention to educating workers about the context within which they had to function.

In the 1990s I took a great deal of interest in the Movement, having earlier been an executive member of the Teachers’ Union. In 1992, I was the guest speaker at a meeting in commemoration of May Day, organised by the Joint Workers Council and held at the Fish Market. The following year I was also a guest speaker at a retreat of the National Workers’ Movement in Layou. On these occasions, apart from tracing the origin and significance of Labour Day, I tried to put the workers’ struggle within a broader context. The absence of this type of focus I considered a weakness.

The other problem of more recent vintage is the perception held by workers that the leadership of some of the unions had been guilty of betraying the cause of workers and feathering their own nests. They thus give lukewarm support to their leadership. Workers are under a lot of pressure. We have followed the plight of the three teachers whose matter, as I noted, is now before the court. Now more than ever, at a time when the workers really need their unions, many are following their leaders who are kowtowing to the political establishment. The situation will only change when leadership committed to the cause of workers emerges. Not before! In recent times we have seen the dismantling of union leadership as they are picked off one by one and remain only phantom leaders.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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