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Another Labour Day

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I wonder how many persons know about the significance of next Monday’s holiday. The fact that I have even dared to raise this is testimony to the death of the Labour Movement. The May 1 holiday, initially recognized as International Workers Day, arose in 1886 over the struggles of workers for an eight-hour working day, which culminated in a massive rally in Chicago on May 1.{{more}} Actually, not all countries commemorate Labour Day on May 1. Even in the US, it is celebrated in September. The initial idea of declaring May 1 as Labour Day and as a public holiday in the British Caribbean colonies came out of a resolution passed at the 1945 Conference of the Caribbean Labour Congress in Barbados. It stated that “Congress invites all Governments in the Caribbean area to consider declaring the First Day of May in each year ‘Labour Day’ and that this date should be proclaimed a Public Holiday.” At that Congress were George McIntosh and J S Bonadie representing the S.Vincent Workingmen’s Cooperative Association.

Labour Day was first celebrated in St Vincent on Tuesday, May 1, 1951. That day marked the official launching of George Charles’ United Workers, Peasants and Ratepayers Union. Over 2,000 workers, accompanied by two brass bands, sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” as they marched from King George V Playing Field at Arnos Vale to Victoria Park. They wore a black cross that was said to represent the sacrifice made by labour to achieve the measure of power that they felt they were then achieving. It was a glorious day, as workers moved into Kingstown, full of expectation for the dawning of a new day.

Labour Day, commonly referred to as May Day, was commemorated on the first Monday in May, until the early period of the present government, when it was changed to May 1. I had supported it strongly, feeling that having the holiday on May 1, rather than on the first Monday, would help to lift peoples’ consciousness about its significance. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm and joy that the workers expressed in 1951 is something of the past. The movement is now a shadow of itself, in fact, a skeleton. There was a labour movement even before trade unions were legally recognized. There are many workers who, for whatever reason, are not members of a union, or if they are, do so only because of the narrow benefits they get from membership. My concern is about the consciousness of workers and an understanding of the significance and role of the movement.

Since the 1920s, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies recognized trade unions as “a natural and legitimate consequence of progress,” but felt at the same time that they could be “a source of disturbance if not officially recognised.” This played itself out clearly in the 1930s in different Caribbean colonies when workers rioted. The British Government encouraged the British Trade Union Congress to work along with unions in the colonies to develop what they regarded as ‘responsible trade unions’. In fact when the West Indian Royal Commission was sent to the colonies to investigate circumstances leading to the outbreak of the riots, members of the Trade Union Congress were included on the Commission. When Sir Walter Citrine visited St Vincent, workers congregated outside the Court House demanding to see him. He agreed to speak to them, but informed the gathering that he was speaking as the General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress and not as a member of the Commission.

Despite the distinction that I suggested between the labour and trade union movement, I was always consciousness of the important role that trade unions had played and were playing, not only in attempting to lift workers’ consciousness, but also in the development of the society, as seen in the movement toward adult suffrage and federation and independence. On June 22, 1991, I addressed the 3rd Conference of delegates of the National Workers Movement on “Trade Union as an Instrument of Development and Change.” In 1992, I spoke at a Labour Day Rally at the Fish Market and in 1993, made a presentation to a retreat of the National Workers Movement on the topic “The Trade Union Movement, its evolution and role in the development of political society.” I say all of this to make the point that it pains me deeply to see the state of the workers’ movement today.

At a recent address to the 19th Biennial Convention of the Teachers Union, Dr Tennyson Joseph, as reported in I Witness News, decried the state of the labour movement and saw it as one of the first casualties of independence. Today, it is seen by many university graduates who work in Government administration as obsolete and backward. The bodies are asked to make sacrifices for the good of the country, even when the conditions of members continue to deteriorate and employers reap whatever benefits there are.

Trade unions need to examine the factors responsible for their present status. As Dr Joseph suggested, what is needed is a deep, honest diagnosis. Without doubt, technological and economic changes have impacted negatively on unions, but there is also a political dimension as their relationship as junior partners with governments force them to compromise the interests of their members. Dr Joseph urged them to cut ties with political parties and maintain their independence. It is only in this context, I believe, that the theme of the Biennial Convention, “Commitment and Loyalty to your Trade Union: The Gateway to a Brighter Future’ makes sense”.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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