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Reliving the glorious struggles – Part II

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The 2010 Carnival season has officially begun with reassurances from the Police Service of their continued efforts to guarantee our safety during the “bacchanal” season.

In the build-up to Carnival 1981, our citizens could not have felt so secure. As explained in the first part of this article last week, the pre-Carnival season that year was pregnant with social uncertainty. In particular, the industrial relations climate was at its lowest ebb with workers in the essential services being at loggerheads with their employers. 1981 was perhaps the most militant Labour Day in our history.{{more}}

In the build up to that historic occasion, Vincentians had to suffer from a strike by workers of the Central Water and Sewerage Authority (CWSA) that lasted all of 16 days and left most citizens “hot and sweaty” as we say in local parlance. Workers in most other sectors were also up in arms against the actions of what was increasingly perceived to be an anti- worker government. So May Day 1981 witnessed an unprecedented level of trade union and worker unity. Adding fuel to the fire was the reaction of  the government of the day in attempting to use heavy-handed repressive tactics to quell the growing rebellion.

The proverbial straw which broke the camel’s back came on May 7, 1981 with the introduction in the House of Assembly of two Bills aimed at restoring public order. They were An Act to amend the Essential Services Act 1965 and an Act to Preserve Public Order and Public Safety, forever to gain infamy as the “Dread Bills”.

Roll back rights

In one fell swoop, the government was attempting to roll back all those worker and trade union rights, won after decades of hard struggle and to impose legislation which aimed at curtailing not only fundamental workers rights such as the right to take industrial action, but, more ominously to impinge on such hallowed rights as those of freedom of association and even thought. One clause in the Public Safety and Public Order Act even made “intent” an offence!

The most positive outcome of this highly-charged situation was that it helped to unify the labour movement. Immediately following the introduction of the Bills, seven workers and farmers organisations met and decide to set up a Committee for the Defence of Democracy (CDD) to coordinate a campaign against the bills. More significantly, recognising the implications for the wider society, the unions invited some 21 other religious, civic, youth, social and political organisations to meet with them to mount a national mobilisation effort to defend the hard-earned rights of the Vincentian people.

Earth-shaking events

Consequently there arose an unprecedented mobilisation and unity of the Vincentian people, not behind any party political banner, but on an independent basis, headed by the working people themselves. The CDD was broadened to the NCDD, the ‘N’ reflecting the national nature of its scope and mandate. Thereafter our country was to witness a series of earth-shaking events which made their mark in preserving democracy and fundamental human rights.

On Wednesday June 3, 1981, a massive crowd of some 10,000-15,000 according to varying estimates staged a massive march and rally in Kingstown, demanding the withdrawal of the “Dread Bills”. An ultimatum of June 11 was given for this, pending further mass action. When this passed without the requisite action by the government, an even bigger demonstration and rally was held on June 16, followed by a one-day work stoppage on June 17. The latter however, had mixed response, with intimidation and fear of losing jobs in a rough economic climate undermining the solidarity of the workers movement.

One week later, this country was to endure the frightening spectacle of the withdrawal of the service of those on whom citizens depend to uphold law and order. All through the crisis, the Police officers had indicated that, like their civilian counterparts, they too had lots of grievances. But bound by the nature of their duties, they had not the privilege of joining the national mobilisation. On June 23, they could bear it no longer and an historic sick-out by police occurred, leading to a night of fear and looting.

Back off

In the face of all this, the government had no alternative but to back off, killing the bills legislatively and so ensuring that at least it could maintain its term of office. But it was terminally wounded by the confrontation and at the next available opportunity, the elections of 1984, the electorate kicked the Cato administration out of office. The popular movement had scored an important victory, but not learning the lessons, it had to take up the same struggles a decade and a half later.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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