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The BWU 75th Anniversary

By Orlando Scott

The Barbados Workers’ Union (B.W.U.) has celebrated a number of milestones during its 75-year history, among which have been its fifth birthday in 1946, its 25th anniversary in 1966, its fiftieth anniversary in 1991 and currently its Platinum year.

Even though all landmarks are considered as being important to individuals and institutions, the BWU’s fifth anniversary was a defining moment for its leadership and membership, given the remarkable strides it had made in such a short period against the backdrop of the stifling social, political and economic environment in Barbados. It must be remembered that in 1937 when the Social Rebellion broke out in Bridgetown, as a consequence of the low standard of living, the franchise was limited and trade unions were illegal.

The B.W.U. was registered on October 4th, 1941, following the passage of the Trade Union Act in 1939 and its coming into force a year later. These advances occurred in what may be described as “perilous times”, when on the world’s stage, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi forces and Benito Mussolini’s fascism, together with Japan’s overrunning of South East Asia, were threatening to destroy the democratic forces across the Globe. At the regional level, the birth of the B.W.U. came at a time when the leadership of the nascent Labour Movement in the other colonies of the British West Indies was struggling to build a platform in its attempt to democratise our social institutions. The passage of the Trade Union Act in Barbados, and its coming into force in 1940, occurred in the same year that the Barbados Progressive League, the parent body of the B.W.U. had achieved a level of success at the polls, which resulted in a rise in enthusiasm and confidence on the part of the labour movement in Barbados, notwithstanding the restricted nature of the franchise.  The Barbados Progressive League was at the time divided into three distinct sections. These were: the Barbados Workers’ Union, the League’s economic section; the Progressive League’s Friendly Society, the League’s security section; and the Barbados Labour Party, the League’s political section.

The leaders of the then fledgling Barbados Workers’ Union, clearly pleased with the advancements it had made at the stage of its fifth year, in 1945, published a 35-page booklet in which it gave account of its stewardship and in which it invited the Governor, Sir Henry Grattan Bushe, the Bishop, the Right Reverend William Hughes and the country’s first Labour Commissioner, Guy Perrin to pen their messages.

The three leaders congratulated the Barbados Workers’ Union for its efforts, in a mere five years of seeking to successfully lay down the foundation for a sound industrial relations system on the island.

Writing in context of the anxious days of World War 11 and the changing political times, Bishop Hughes stated that questions of government, economic and social welfare were now concerns of all and that pre-war methods of thinking were no longer tenable “as we had passed into a new age”. His view was that this fact imposed a heavy responsibility on all men. He advised that “thought must precede action, not only for the solution of immediate and local problems, but for the well-being of mankind as a whole”. His advice to the leadership of the B.W.U. was this: “Your Union is young. If the members give of their fullest support, if they bring into their deliberations wise thought and clear vision, it will not only win the full confidence of the community as a whole, but will become a valuable instrument in the re-shaping of conditions in the colony which a world situation demands, and will be the means of producing responsible leaders, which is one of the greatest needs of our age”.

Sir Henry Grattan Bushe, best known in Barbados for his constitutional move, in 1946, known as “The Bushe Experiment”, welcomed the formation of organisations of employers and workers without which, he stated, the complicated life of the present day tended to degenerate very quickly into disorder.

Governor Bushe added:”… although it would be premature to say that our house is in order, we can, at least, look back with satisfaction to the gradual emergence of some method in the discussion and settlement of industrial relations. That the Barbados Workers’ Union has played a prominent part in this organisation is a matter for congratulations on this its fifth birthday”.

Writing against the backdrop of the challenging terrain in which the masses had trekked over the preceding 300 years of colonial rule, and the accomplishments of the past five years of trade unionism, B.W.U. President General Grantley Herbert Adams, who was later to assume the post of the first Premier of Barbados, in his brief message, stated that if he had to single out one conspicuous gain by the worker in these past years, he should unhesitatingly state RESPECT. According to Adams: “The worker has acquired more self-respect than was formerly his and has merited and obtained the respect of the employing class.” Adams’ statement clearly demonstrated the condescending attitude and contempt which Capital showed towards the masses.

Adams wrote “…while we in the Barbados Workers’ Union are aware of the added impetus given by the War to the whole Labour and Trade Union Movement throughout the world, we can, I think, look with justifiable pride on our achievements in the five years of our existence, which, if not phenomenal, have certainly been outstanding in an island like our own”.

In assessing the character of the Barbadian, Adams wrote:” The average Barbadian of all classes is a sturdy individualist. It is only by constant teaching of the virtues of unity and co-operation that he can be persuaded to unite and to work together in industrial matters as a single unit. This is not, as at first sight it may appear, due to lack of appreciation of the blessings of common effort. It is due rather to the traditional Barbadian habit of relying on himself. He is proud and regards as a weakness an appeal to others for help. In these past five years, however, he has learnt that it is not unmanly to unite with other workers; that there is greater strength in association than in the sum total of individual efforts; that there is no loss of self-respect in combining with his fellow workers in the fight for better labour conditions; and, above all, that he has laid the foundations for a better social and economic order in this island on which sure base we can already see arising a superstructure which will be at once a haven of security for the workers than now toil and a fortress which generations yet unborn will issue forth in the unending struggle against the forces of capitalism and Reaction.

“I feel sure that our branch of the great World Trade Union Movement will shine out as a guide and a beacon to those workers throughout the West Indies who are not yet enjoying the blessings of a firmly-established and constantly strengthened organisation.”

Messages From Fraternal Organisations

On the occasion of the celebration of its landmark fifth anniversary in October, 1946, the fledgling Barbados Workers’ Union was the joyous recipient of messages of congratulations and goodwill from the leaders of the Labour and Trade Union organisations from across the then British West Indies, among whom were men who were later to lead their respective countries into nationhood.

All of the well-wishers, having made their contribution to national development in their respective countries in their fields, as trade union leaders, chief ministers and or prime ministers, have all gone to be with their fathers and it would be interesting if it were possible, today, for them to sit where they are and be able reflect on their sentiments and Labour’s achievements over the passage of time.

We think it salutary to record some of these names of these noble men who set the stage for the decolonisation process, since at the regional level, and even in their own countries, their names and their deeds may have been forgotten.

These leaders included Vere Cornwall Bird, President of the Antigua Trades and Labour Union, later to become Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Robert Llewellyn Bradshaw, President of the St. Kitts-Nevis Trades and Labour Union, later to take up the post of Prime Minister of that country. Among the other notables who sent congratulatory messages to the Barbados Workers’ Union were Hubert Nathaniel Crichlow, General Secretary and Founder of the British Guiana Labour Union, N.N. (“Crab”) Nethersole, Chairman of the Jamaica Trades Union Congress, later to become a Minister of Government in Jamaica, George A. McIntosh, President of the St. Vincent Workingmen’s’ Cooperative Association Limited, Ralph Mentor, Secretary of the Trinidad and Tobago Trades Union Council, and Dr. E.F. Gordon, M.B., Ch.B. (Edin.), M.C.P. of Bermuda.

Mr. V.B. St. John, President of the Barbados Clerks’ Union was also among regional trade unionists offering congratulations to the BWU.

Vere Bird wrote that The Antigua Trades and Labour Union had only recently passed its seventh birthday and that “we take pride in being a companion with your virile organisation on the journey towards the firm and unshakeable establishment of Trade Unionism in these territories and the welding of the several communities into a united body. But if we are to reach the goal, there must be no resting on our laurels, no faltering on the way, or, sleeping on the watch; but the continuous steady tramp of tireless feet and the sympathetic throbbing of heart and beating of pulse in that great humanitarianism which unites workers everywhere upon the globe into one family”.

While echoing a call for unity, determination and undeviating perseverance in the West Indies, Bird emphasised that changes of a magnitude, as had been experienced by all peoples in the formative period of nationhood, were taking place in our midst, and it was of the utmost importance that the Labour movements in the various communities maintain a sober attitude so that every step, every stage in this great evolution, would find the ground firmly laid and the foundation strongly built – that our progress shall be orderly and according to plans well laid in advance.”

Robert Bradshaw, while noting that five years of labour for the development of working class unity was an experience which had brought unbounded pleasure to the Barbados Workers’ Union, cautioned: 

“To-day the course is still strewn with diverse obstacles which, by their nature, tend to detract the movement from its upward climb”. He added:” It can well be said that at this significant period of national development and reconstruction, it is imperative that the fullest support from every source of progressive thought in the British West Indies be lent to the Barbados Workers’ Union to stand as a beacon in the Eastern Caribbean for illuminating the way to a higher life for the masses”. He pledged the support of the St. Kitts-Nevis Trades and Labour Union.

Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, who may described as the ‘The Father of Trade Unionism’ in the British West Indies informed the Barbados Workers’ Union that it had “a record of which you can feel justly proud”. He informed the B.W.U.’s leadership that, in this war era, the new problems that confront the workers were not only local, but also intercolonial. He added that these problems would not be overcome by merely passing resolutions, but “must be tackled constructively with all the intelligence, knowledge and efficiency at the command of the Labour Movement”.

“We desire a Congress, such as have recently established, where industrial and other problems can be threshed out and a programme worked out for the realisation of economic democracy and political emancipation. Workers must no longer be willing to acquiesce in a system under which industry is run for the benefit of a few. The need is ever increasing for the control of the workers over the industry in which they are engaged; and further, for a demand for public ownership of essential industries.

“These things demand sound and intelligent leadership and guidance. They need, too, to have the full understanding of the rank and file as to what they involve; and the loyalty and support of the working people everywhere to the trade union movement. With unity much can be accomplished. Now that you are on the threshold of your sixth year, I appeal to you all to rededicate yourselves to work harder and stronger than ever before for the preservation of what you have gained and the fulfillment of your desires and aspirations”.

“I wish you long life and may your union grow stronger numerically as well as financially”

Ralph Mentor, Secretary of the Trinidad and Tobago Trades Union Council praised the Barbados Workers’ Union for the “excellent team spirit, loyalty and devotion” which he saw exhibited among the leaders and followers of the organisation, when he attended the meeting of the Caribbean Labour Congress (held in Barbados) in 1945. He wrote: “I should unhesitatingly say that the secret of your success lies in the outstanding intellectual capacity and honesty of purpose of your tried and faithful leaders, among whom are such men as Messrs Brantley H. Adams, B.A., M.C.P. and Hugh W. Springer, M.A., M.C.P., your president and general Secretary respectively and the unswerving loyalty on the part of the membership to those leaders”.

George A. McIntosh, President of the St. Vincent Workingmen’s Co-operative Association Limited, extended best wishes to the B.W.U. on the behalf of the St. Vincent Workingmen’s Association. He hoped that the Union would continue to grow and flourish as a medium through which the condition of the working people of Barbados would be ameliorated.

His view was that all labour organisations operating under a capitalist set-up must encounter not only the external barriers, but also the internal obstacles that periodically appear among the very workers in whose interest the organisations are operating. He considered that it was therefore essential that our object should be to create a social order by which means only we can hope to get greater security and freedom for all workers.

McIntosh suggested that In order to have such an aim, efforts had to be directed towards a West Indian Federation whereby the region could emerge as a West Indian Nation within the British Commonwealth.

Dr. E.F. Gordon’s letter was of particular interest. He wrote that his union had successfully agitated for Trade Union Laws and the Trade Union and Trade Disputes Act, 1946, had just been passed in the Assembly and was before the Legislative Council. He recalled that The Trade Union Act, 1939, of Barbados, was the inspiration that caused his Union’s President to fight valiantly but unsuccessfully for the right to use their funds for purposes other than statutory purposes in addition to which “because you preceded us by three years we have decided to name our Union, “The Bermuda Industrial Union” to avoid the confusion of two B.W.U.s. We shall always follow your progress with the greatest interest and we feel our fate is indissolubly tied with yours, as you are the most progressive of the three Bs – Barbados, Bahamas and Bermuda, whose constrictions are similar in our form of Representative Government”.

Recounting his attendance at the Caribbean Labour Congress meeting in Barbados in September of 1945, Dr. Gordon wrote: “I have fond and vivid memories of the very pleasant and inspiring association that I had the honour to make as guest of the BWU and the Progressive league….I brought back with me the “Red Flag” which was sung for the first time in Bermuda on the 8th November 1945 and has since been the parting hymn at all our gatherings.