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A look at the workers’ movement

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This article was written on the eve of May Day, so it is not possible to comment on the response of Vincentian workers to this year’s attempt to revive the spirit of May Day and re-invigorate the labour movement in St Vincent and the Grenadines. That is no easy task, to judge by the still low level of trade union consciousness, the far from satisfactory state of worker unionisation and the lack of solidarity and needless divisions within the workers’ movement.{{more}}

The May Day holiday that we now take for granted, so much so that it has lost most of its significance to the vast majority of Vincentian workers, did not come easy. If one takes time to reflect on our list of public holidays, one would realize that most of them have some grounding in religious festivals. The others that don’t, have a history of their own, a history bound up with the struggles of our people for democracy and freedom.

Out of these struggles has emerged our August Monday, now more correctly, August 1, to mark the anniversary of Emancipation Day in 1838. Our Independence Day holiday also stands out in this category, putting down the marker on our constitutional advance to nationhood. In more recent times, we have managed to remove the shame of the former January 22nd, so-called “Discovery Day” and been able to institute proudly March 14 as National Heroes’ Day. We are yet as a people to work out the proper place of October 21, the date of the anti-colonial uprising of 1935, and how it should be suitably commemorated.

May Day is special in that it is not just a Vincentian holiday. We share it with hundreds of millions of working people the world over, cutting across national boundaries, differing economic systems, ethnic and ideological differences. It is simply THE DAY for the workers of the world. It did not come easily; much blood sweat, tears and sacrifice have gone into making May 1 as much a day to celebrate for the exploited worker in a factory in Bangladesh, as it is for a worker in the stately homes in Mustique, a worker in the financial district in Wall Street or in the crowded townships in Soweto in South Africa. May Day is the reminder of the common bonds between them, irrespective of perceived places in the social ladder. They are all workers, in the service of capital, and but for their unity and solidarity, prone to suffer at the whims and fancies of the employer class.

In this little country of ours, it is not by chance that the careers of two of the persons being highly considered for the status of National Hero, George McIntosh and Ebenezer Joshua, are inextricably bound with the history of May Day and the struggles of the Vincentian working people. They made use of the international appeal of May Day to mobilize our works, to lift the level of their consciousness, to build the local labour movement and lay the foundations for the very rights we enjoy today.

The history of our labour movement is an essential element in our collective history of political and constitutional advancement, of claiming and defending our rights to freedom of, the right to organize trade unions and engage in collective bargaining, thought and assembly. It has contributed to the lifting of living standards and decent educational, health and social conditions for working people and their children in particular.

The collective will of the labour movement has brought about significant advances in labour legislation, as well as increased respect for trade unions. There was a time, not too long ago, when white-collar workers, such as bank employees, used to think that trade unions were for the lowly workers. Even when on-the-job pressures forced them into unionisation, some tried to form their own unions, rather than link with the other established unions. The harshness of capitalist exploitation quickly blew that illusion away.

Those who previously felt that unions, picket lines and worker action was “below” them, who felt that they were “safe” in their jobs, not just in SVG, have found themselves reduced overnight from cockiness to unemployed status, retrenched as the multinationals put profit before all else, without a job, salary, but with mortgages and loans to pay. The Cable and Wireless employee has found him/herself even more vulnerable than the sanitation worker. For all the advances, the workers still face serious threats – erosion of living standards, failure to pay wages and salaries on time, inadequate compensation for dismissal and injury, lack of respect for unions and their leaders.

To be fair, some blame must be absorbed by trade union leaders, for placing political, personal and petty differences above the interests of the class, and by workers for not giving enough support to their unions and leaders. We have allowed the employer class to put a “bum rap” on union leaders, from Joshua to Duff Walker-James, from Cyril Roberts to Burns Bonadie, down to Noel Jackson of today, making out to workers as if these are the worst persons on earth — the same leaders that workers must run to in times of trouble.

They are no saints, but each has contributed to building the movement, towards improving the lives of workers and their families. They have continued the traditions of McIntosh and Joshua, the spirit of ‘Sheriff’ Lewis and Bertha Mutt, and each, in his/her own way, helped to make the movement what it is today. We have a long way to go, but the memory of the recent death of another working class stalwart, Caspar London, should inspire us to consolidate the movement, to organize the unorganized, to defend the defenceless and to give hope to the hopeless.

Caspar would love that!

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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