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Another Labour Day! What do we Celebrate?

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I don’t know if I missed it but I searched last week’s papers for news of any Labour Day activities and couldn’t find any. It is as if the meaning of Labour Day is now a secret. I could well imagine how those who have fought for recognition of this day are turning in their graves in anger.{{more}}

In encouraging the recognition of Trade Unions the British Secretary of State in the 1920s had expressed the view that Trade Unions were “a natural and legitimate consequence of progress, but a source of disturbance if they were not officially recognised.”

But we have long passed that thanks to a large extent to the labour disturbances of the 1930s. George McIntosh and St Clair Bonadie were St Vincent’s representatives at a Conference in Barbados in 1945 that officially launched the Caribbean Labour Congress. Among the resolutions passed then was one that called on governments to declare May 1 Labour Day and to make it a holiday.

Workers were already on the move from the 1930s. In 1936, shortly after its formation, the McIntosh led Workingmen’s Association organised one of the first labour marches. It was on August 3, 1936, August Monday, when workers marched from the Market Square to Victoria Park singing “Toilers of the Nation”. In 1951, the newly formed George Charles led United Workers Peasants and Ratepayers Union celebrated May Day with a march from the King George V Playing Field that attracted 3,000 workers. Labour was on the move, something that caused O.W Forde to issue a warning in 1951 to his fellow planters that “We must accept the view that Trade Unions are here to stay.”

Over the years, workers through their Trade Unions had impacted with their feet and voices as they made demands on the establishment. The most significant in recent times had been the 1975 Teachers Strike. One also has to recognise that workers were also on the move in the 2000 so called “Road Block Revolution”. But why is the movement so silent today?

The situation pains me for I had stood over the years with the Movement making whatever contribution I could. I remember being the lone figure holding a placard outside the Grammar School compound in answer to the Union’s call in 1975. But even before this when the issue of the transfer of Mrs Connell arose in the late 1960s I had just left school and had taken up a teaching appointment at the Grammar School. The Secondary teachers belonged to a Secondary School Teachers Association that was separate from the St. Vincent Teachers Association. As far as I can remember Leroy Adams was the President, Oscar Allen the Secretary and I held the position of Assistant Secretary. When the authorities did not respond positively to our demands, we made a decision to go on strike. This was however superseded by the efforts of the students who took control of things.

There are other instances including 1981 when the working people made their presence felt. Oscar and I were part of the delegation that met with government officials at the Cabinet room upstairs the Post Office. Leading the Government charge were Ministers Grafton Isaacs and Arthur Williams.

When I left my teaching position, I continued to take a keen interest in and supported the Movement. As I reflect on where the Movement is today I have before me copies of speeches I had made in 1992 and 1993. In 1992 I addressed a May Day Rally at the Fish Market. In 1993 I made a presentation to a Retreat of the National Workers Movement held at St Anthony’s House in Layou. My address was entitled “The Trade Union Movement its evolution and role in the development of political society”. Today the story is different and moreover sad. There is a deafening silence. The matter of the three teachers who were denied reemployment following the last general election is not yet resolved. The Union has had to fight the battle in Court since there is no spine and motivation to take on a fight outside the Court.

I write this because it hurts me. Granted, labour is under strain just about everywhere. The economic situation and socio-economic changes and changes in technology have presented serious challenges to the labour movement but it is still alive elsewhere. We continue to hear voices that remind governments that the movement is still alive. Not so here. There is only silence. The Unions are on life support systems. The reality is that the working people are under such pressure these days that they need support. The need for a movement is even more urgent. Today there has been a growing gap in income inequality. Workers have difficulty making ends meet as the cost of living continues to soar and their wages remain stagnant. There is an interesting situation in the US where the multi-billionaire Koch brothers are spearheading the Republican effort to fight against increasing the minimum wage for American workers. Just imagine that. An increase in the minimum wages would apparently signal the end of the world while the Koch brothers’ wealth continues to increase. Unfortunately there has always been the narrow view that the Trade Union movement is about fighting for increased wages. It is certainly much more than that. I was going to say that without the Trade Unions workers will have to depend solely on political parties. But this is where the problem is. The Union leaders are the ones kowtowing to the political directorate, forgetting what they are really all about. It is sad indeed. We might even have to begin to question the relevance of a Labour Day holiday.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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