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A half century of worker organisation

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Tue, Dec 11, 2012

Monday, December 10, 2012 marked 64 years since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the historic Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the most profound international document outlining the fundamental rights and freedoms to which all human beings are entitled. Since then, that document has been the yardstick by which the international community judges the respect of the rights of all citizens of the world.{{more}}

Each year, the UN itself, various international and regional organisations, human rights associations and governments, hold activities to mark the adoption of the Declaration in 1948 and to focus on any outstanding violations of human rights throughout the world. This year the focus was on the right of all persons to make their voices heard in public life and to be included in the political decision-making process. The relevant Articles of the Declaration outlining these rights are Articles 19-21.

For the purpose of today’s column, I shall make reference to Article 20 of the Declaration. This Article states that “Everyone has the right to peaceful assembly and association”, with the proviso that “no one shall be compelled to belong to any association”. It is under the ambit of this article that the precious right of workers to form and belong to trade unions is guaranteed internationally.

Though this right is enshrined in the Declaration, it is not always observed or respected in practice. Workers and their unions have historically paid a very high price to exercise their rights to freely and peacefully associate and even to assemble at peaceful gatherings.

All over the world, the employer class has a record of influencing governments to curtail the rights of workers and trade unions and to coerce them into submission to the dictates of those who have control over the means of production.

St Vincent and the Grenadines has not been any exception in this regard and it took bitter struggles, on the plantations, at various workplaces, on the streets and even in the Court for our workers to be able to enjoy this right. In so doing, we have been left a rich legacy of working class struggle, beginning with George McIntosh and the Workingmen’s Association, right through Ebenezer Joshua and George Charles, for the rights of workers and trade unions to be fully respected. We, today, take trade union rights for granted, but these have been won at a high price.

Even after six decades, there continues to be constant pressure exerted on the leadership of trade unions – by employers, political parties, the media, sometimes by workers themselves, as if they must always try to justify their existence and activities. Conversely, no such onus is placed on employers’ associations and Chambers of Trade and Commerce. In the process, trade union leaders have been portrayed, very unfairly so, as being prone to corruption and abuse of their positions of responsibility. No such stigma exists for leaders of the employer bodies.

As a consequence, up to today, many workers are still reluctant to join unions, and especially to pay union dues, though they benefit from the existence of unions and their influence both on national legislation and the collective bargaining process. Although the right to collective bargaining and association is not only guaranteed by the UN Declaration, but enshrined in local law, too many workers are still disorganised and lack the collective clout to bargain in their own interests.

The Declaration, and strong worker agitation and organisation led to the emergence of Joshua’s Federated and Industrial Workers Union in 1951, even as the right to vote was extended to all over the age of 21 under universal suffrage. Fourteen years after the adoption of the Declaration, another trade union made its appearance in SVG. This was the Commercial Technical and Allied Workers Union (CTAWU). It was to become a household name in trade unionism in our country.

Interestingly, the CTAWU was formed on Human Rights Day, December 10, 1962. That makes it fully 50 years old, a landmark in our still relatively young trade union movement. Over the years this union has produced a plethora of trade union and working class leaders, organizing mainly the ‘blue-collar’ workers though in more recent times, ‘white-collar’ workers such as in the banking and communication sectors have come to see the wisdom of organizing. The CTAWU can reminisce on the contributions of these early leaders who made the sacrifice to build the union. Several of them, like founder Rev. Duff Walker-James, Cyril Roberts and ‘Sonny’ Boyce are now deceased, though not forgotten. Still with us though, are Joseph ‘Burns’ Bonadie, who rose to become Secretary General of the Caribbean Congress of Labour, Sis. Alice Mandeville, the most prominent woman in the union’s history and that outstanding working class stalwart, Caspar London.

I can feel Caspar’s pain when he asked, in his weekly newspaper column on November 2: “Is the CTAWU going to allow such a milestone in its history, (its Golden Anniversary), to pass without acknowledgement?” Surely, whatever the parlous state of affairs of the union, the pioneers of the union, the members and the entire trade union movement deserve more respect that this? How can we allow such solid manifestations of the durability of the workers movement to go by quietly and without fanfare?

We should be raising the flag of achievement, not ignoring difficulties and weaknesses, but proclaiming that 50 years of struggle is a tribute to the justness of the cause.

Renwick Rose is a

community activist

and social commentator.

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