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70th Anniversary of the Caribbean Labour Congress/Barbados Conference
Friday, 25 September 2015 15:17

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the convening of the Inaugural Conference of the Caribbean Labour Congress, at Harrison College under the chairmanship of Grantley Adams (now Rt. Excellent), who held the dual posts of President of the Barbados Progressive League and President of the Barbados Workers’ Union. The League and the Union were joint hosts of the conference, held from September 17 to 27, 1945, the same year that Frank Walcott (now Rt. Excellent Sir Frank) was employed by the Barbados Workers’ Union as assistant to the General Secretary.

The Conference was among the early efforts by Labour leaders in the English and Dutch-speaking Caribbean at unifying the regional trade union movement. That conference, at which Hugh Springer (now Rt. Excellent), B.W.U. General Secretary played a key role as organizer, was attended by twenty-six delegates representing Jamaica, St. Kitts, Antigua, St. Lucia, Barbados, St. Vincent, Grenada, Trinidad, British Guiana, Bermuda and Suriname.

Apart from Grantley Adams, the attendees included Vere Cornwall Bird of Antigua, T.A. Marryshow of Grenada, Hubert Critchlow and A.A. Thorne of British Guiana (now Guyana), George McIntosh of St. Vincent, Albert Gomes of Trinidad and Tobago, Richard Hart of Jamaica, Dr. E.F. Gordon of Bermuda, and C.P. van den Bloom of Suriname.

Richard Hart, President of the Jamaica Railway Employees’ Union was among the visionaries who spoke out strongly for political and economic unity of the region. His recorded sentiments appeared in an article under the heading “Our Problems and The Future”, in the Barbados Workers’ Union’s Fifth Anniversary pamphlet, published 1946, on the 1945 conference in Barbados. After examining the social, political and economic issues of the English-speaking Caribbean, Hart, an avowed socialist, stated that despite the variety of detailed approach in each of the territories of the Caribbean, economic considerations made it necessary that they be developed as one economic unit with one over-all plan. The reasons for this, according to Hart, were set out fairly comprehensively in the statement on the Economic Aspects of Federation issued by the Barbados Conference (1945) of the Caribbean Labour Congress Report.

Were he still alive, Richard Hart would, most likely be unhappy with the progress the Caribbean has made, based on his vision. Hart, known as one of the 4-Hs, a group of socialist thinkers in Jamaica, emphasised that it was essential that our trade union and socialist organisations begin to work more closely together, both to expedite political federation based on self government and universal adult suffrage, and to achieve the best results by the pooling of our strength in the struggle to establish a decent standard of living. Hart argued that for this reason, the Barbados Conference held in September, 1945 and the establishment of the Caribbean Labour Congress was of utmost importance. For the same reason, he added the fact that the Caribbean Labour Congress had made no organisational progress since its foundation.

Hart, who was secretary to the Conference, added that whatever progress the Caribbean made, would be the fruit of our own efforts. He stated that history was galloping at break-neck speed and that, unless we in the Caribbean Labour Congress resolutely tackled the causes of delay in getting the organisation, of our joint creation, on its feet and remedy its shortcomings without regard to personal sentiment, “we will be left trailing in the rear of forward march of the workers of the world”.

At the Commonwealth Caribbean level, the first efforts at unity insofar as the labour movement is concerned, according to Ashton Chase, writing in “Glimpses of the Growth of Trade Unions in the Commonwealth Caribbean”, appears to have been inspired by Hubert Critchlow, a trade union leader in British Guiana.

Prior to the inaugural Caribbean Labour Congress conference in Barbados in 1945, there were several conferences aimed at Caribbean unity with people like Hubert Chrichlow, Marryshow and Adams playing a pivotal role.

On January, 1926 under the aegis of the British Guiana Labour Union, the first British Guiana and West Indies Labour Conference was held at the Public Buildings in Georgetown. Present for Trinidad and Tobago were Captain A.A. Cipriani and W. Howard Bishop; and for Suriname W.J. Lesperan and W.H. Bastick. The British Labour Party and the international Trades Union Congress were represented by Hon. F.I. Roberts, M.P.., P.C.

The conference called for a Guianese and West Indian federation of Trade unions and labour parties. According to Chase, a move was also made to establish a code so that trade unions in the Commonwealth Caribbean could secretly make contact with each other. As Ashton Chase points out, remember those were the days when workers were taken from one island or territory to another to help break strikes. Of import, the conference called for a Federation of British Guiana and the West Indies as being in the best interest of their peoples. Other matters that engaged the attention of the Conference included: compulsory education throughout the West Indies; workmen’s compensation; and an eight-hour working day; factory laws; end of child labour; minimum wages; old age pensions; national health insurance; prison reform; universal adult suffrage; challenge to jury; and the change of old labour laws.

The 1926 conference was next followed by one in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, in 1938. It was the Conference that the first regional body was founded – called the Caribbean Labour Congress. Its objects were:

  • to strengthen inter-colonial solidarity of the workers in the various trade unions;
  • to provide when and where necessary, machinery for arbitration and conciliation; and
  • to safeguard and promote their common, social and cultural interests by securing unity of action, among member organizations.

Captain A.A. Cipriani was its first president and A.C. Rienzi of the Trinidad Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union was its first General Secretary. Suriname and British Guiana were present at this conference.

The 1944 Conference held in Georgetown, British Guiana, was, until then, the most broad-based of the regional labour conferences, for Barbados were the Honourable Grantley Adams and D.R. Holder; for Grenada was Hon. T.A. Marryshow; for Trinidad and Tobago were the Hon. AA Cipriani, Vivian E. Henry, Albert Gomes of the Federated Workers’ Trade Union and T.O. Jean of the Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union.

The 1944 conference sought to rekindle Commonwealth Caribbean unity. Again there was a wide complex of matters on which the Conference reached a consensus. Among them: a Federation of West Indies and British Guiana; closer cooperation between trade unions in  the Commonwealth Caribbean; uniform criminal procedure regarding juries; the free and unimpeded movement of West Indians and Guianese between the various territories; the setting up of an inter-colonial steamship service; the release of trade unionist Uriah (Buzz”) Butler of Trinidad from prison; housing; on the success of the Red Army (World war 11 being then in its final stage); condemning the setting up of United States of America bases in the West Indies and British Guiana; the right to assemble; adult suffrage; and loyalty to the British throne.

As we saw earlier, the next step was in 1945 in Barbados.

In 1947, the Caribbean Labour Congress met in both Antigua and in Jamaica. Because of the “left” leanings of the revived Caribbean Labour Congress due almost wholly to its Secretary, Richard Hart, a solicitor, the body was finally disbanded in 1949.

According to Ashton Chase., the last and still standing effort of Commonwealth Caribbean unity was initiated in 1960. It came at a time when North American influence was emerging very prominently in this region. Among the chief Commonwealth Caribbean trade union leaders who took this initiative were Rupert Tello of Guyana, John Rojas of Trinidad and Tobago, our own Frank Walcott of Barbados, Richard Ishmael of Guyana and J.H. Pollydore of Guyana. The Constitution of the Caribbean Congress of Labour was drawn up in Grenada in 1960 and amended in Barbados in 1966. Among its several purposes was to promote the welfare and interests of all affiliated organizations in order to achieve in the Caribbean region, full organisation for all workers.

 

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