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The Labour Movement in Focus

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Since I was presented with an advance copy of PM Gonsalves’ latest book a month ago, I have been fitting it in with my other readings. Unfortunately though, I was forced to miss the formal launch of the book, “The Labour Movement in St Vincent and the Grenadines” on Tuesday of this week for personal reasons, in the process missing the opportunity to link up again with some of my regional comrades who addressed the gathering.

I listened intently on radio to the presentations by both brothers, David Commissiong of Barbados, a leading proponent of Caribbean integration and Pan Africanism, and Chester Humphrey, the veteran trade unionist from Grenada. While Bro. Commissiong gave insights as to the valuable contents of the book and provided comments, I was particularly happy that Bro. Humphrey not only made brief comments on the book and the contribution of the author, but took the liberty of sharing some perspectives on the state of the labour movement in the Caribbean today.

Besides the invaluable information, analysis and policy perspectives contained in the book, if it can be a catalyst for stimulating meaningful regional discussion on such a vital issue, and hopefully positive action therefrom, then in that regard alone, Dr Gonsalves would have made yet another massive contribution to Caribbean development.

The book itself can be considered as a prism through which one can not only examine the growth, development and deterioration of the labour movement in the region, but also for understanding the significant challenges it faces today. Those who have blurred social vision will no doubt miss many of the most important features and many of us may not necessarily agree withal the analyses provided or prescriptions recommended, but there is no denying that this is a most rigorous exercise.

What I find especially gratifying is the approach which sees the Labour movement as much broader than the narrow straitjacket of trade unionism and collective bargaining. By looking at the political economy of the labour movement, the much broader definition of the labour movement emerges. Thus it is easy to realize that the labour movement is far more encompassing than trade unionism in its narrowest sense and that the huge tasks of social liberation before it, cannot be accomplished by trade unions in isolation from the rest of the social movement.

That is the inevitable conclusion that early trade union pioneers in the Caribbean arrived at which served to goad them to broaden their focus. In territory after territory, the limitations of narrow trade unionism in breaking down the colonial and planter-class barriers led union leaders to form or ally with political parties in order to attain their goals.

Our history bears this out, whether in the formation of the Workingmen’s Association post-1935, Joshua’s People’s Political Party following Adult Suffrage, or even when Milton Cato’s Labour Party emerged as a counter-weight to the PPP in the mid-fifties having to use the misnomer “Labour” for a party which was anything but a vehicle for the labour movement. There was the recognition that trade unions need broader alliances and a more solid foundation than what could be provided by narrow unionism. Social liberation was always on the agenda- yesterday, today, and until its achievement.

In this regard, St Vincent and the Grenadines was not unique. Throughout the Caribbean, when it became palpably clear that the concessions forced out of the colonial authorities and ruling classes for the establishment of trade unions was inadequate, labour and pro-labour political parties with mass bases involving wider sections of the working people were the vehicles built. It was so in Jamaica, St Kitts, Antigua right down to Trinidad and Guyana, the latter having, before external intervention and division, the most compact mass movement in the region.

It was a powerful tool in propelling the decolonisation process, for Adult Suffrage and in advancing the claims for Caribbean regional integration. In all of these tasks the trade unions did not stand aloof, fearing political “contamination” but broadened the base, widened the vision and took leadership in the march towards Caribbean liberation.

So what has happened to the movement to cause one of its principal regional leaders to have to lament its current weakness and make an impassioned plea for unity in the labour movement, a revival of its fortunes, in new, changed and very challenging circumstances?

We shall conclude on this note next week.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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