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The Role and Function of The Barbados Workers’ Union

Trade unionism in Great Britain traces its birth to the exigencies arising out of the Industrial Revolution. In Barbados, the dramatic upheavals in 1937, like those which occurred in the former British colonies in the West Indies, resulted from the severe social, economic and political environment in which the masses had been condemned from beginnings of colonialism in these parts.

Dr. Francis Mark, writing in “The History of The Barbados Workers Union”, noted that in Barbados in 1937, trade unions were illegal. There was virtually no legislation governing labour relation; nor was there any formal machinery for the settlement of disputes between workers and employers, or for government intervention for purposes of conciliation and arbitration”. Every aspect of life in Barbados was controlled by the planter-merchant oligarchs: Parliament’, the Church’ and the Judiciary. The masses lived in substandard conditions, as a consequence of being paid wages which had differed little between 1838, at Emancipation and 1937, the year of the Disturbances the masses lived in an environment of poor housing, shocking health standards, poor nutrition, high infant mortality, and limited access to education. Add to the forgoing, the oppressive pieces of legislation which kept the masses in their place, barred them from access to the elected franchise and from forming combinations. As cited by Dr. Mark, the general tenor of existing legislation was hostile to the worker and restrictive of his rights, e.g. The Better Security Act, imposed penalties for breaches of contract “of service or hiring” which could be expected to result in loss of life, or injury to person or property, as well as for intimidation, violence, picketing, harassment of hiding another’s tools, the Act could be regarded as providing further reinforcement of the Common Law limitations upon organised strikes of workmen. 

Then there was The Offences against the Person Act, by which anyone who, “in pursuance of any unlawful combination or conspiracy to raise the rate of wages respecting any trade, business or manufacture, or respecting any person concerned or employed therein”, was found guilty of unlawful assault could be sent to prison for up to two (2) years with hard labour.

The British Government was clearly aware of the brutal nature of colonial governments, dominated by the Oligarchs, and the sickening substandard conditions under which the masses existed in the colonies since a number of commissions, stretching from the 19th century, including the Norman Report which had given account of the social, economic and political conditions in the region and up-and-down fortunes of the sugar industry and the impacts of the economies of the colonial territories. Additionally, organisations in the UK, such as the Fabian Society, had been giving public support for the end of colonialism in the colonies.

In Barbados, the voices for change echoed loudest with the Bussa Rebellion of 1816 and continued with the valiant work of Samuel Jackman Prescod (1806-1871, Charles Duncan O’Neal (1879-1936) until the arrival of Clement Osbourne Payne (1904-1940) whose deportation, sparked the Disturbances and led to the setting up of the Royal West India Commission, under Lord Moyne and the local Deane Commission which recommended legislation to provide for minimum wage-fixing, for machinery to settle industrial disputes, and for the appointment of a senior government official who could have special responsibility for Labour. The Royal West India Commission called for the establishment of Labour Departments and the setting up of trade unions. The Labour Department was set up in 1940 and the Barbados Workers’ Union was registered on October 4, 1941, becoming the first legal trade union to be established in Barbados.

By 1934, the voice of Grantley Herbert Adams (1898-1971) was making loud appeals in the House of Assembly and in the halls of the Barbados Progress League for change. By 1939, the Barbados Progressive League, the parent body of the Barbados Workers’ Union, was organising several groups of workers and was actively engaged on their behalf. And following the passing of the Trade Union Act in 1939, and its coming into force in 1940, The Barbados Workers’ Union was registered on October 4, 1941 with Grantley Adams as President General, Hugh Worrell Springer (1913-1994) as General Secretary and Hilton Augustus Coulston, as Treasurer. Adams and Springer were later joined by Frank Leslie Walcott (1961-1999), who became the first employee of The Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) in 1945, serving as Assistant to the General Secretary. Walcott assumed the post of General Secretary in 1948 after Springer resigned the post to become the first Registrar of the University College of the West Indies. The trio was accorded the status of National Hero. 

The work of the B.W.U., together with the efforts of the other democratic forces, has brought about significant revolutionary changes in Barbados, post 1941, the year of the Union’s birth. These changes are reflected in the hue of Parliament, the Judiciary, Business and in every walk of life in the country. In addition, the living standard of the average Barbadian has changed markedly as a consequence of the range of social and labour legislation, which has been lobbied for, or has been piloted by, the B.W.U. in Parliament, including Holidays with Pay, Maternity Leave, National Insurance, Severance Payments and Occupational Safety and Health. But the role of the B.W.U. has not been restricted to the four walls of the factory or office, in dealing with issues such as collective bargaining or grievance handling, important as they are, since the Union, from its genesis, had embarked on a holistic mission aimed at social transformation. In fact, apart from soldiering at the local industrial relations levels, the leading players in the B.W.U., have made significant contributions, not merely with regard to national development, but have played significant and leading roles at the level of the Caribbean and internationally over the past seven (7) decades. Sir Grantley, apart from serving as the founding President General of the B.W.U., was elected as the first Premier of Barbados, and as the first and only Prime Minister of the ill-fated Federation of the West Indies (1958-1962). 

Sir Hugh was appointed as the first Registrar of the University College of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. Apart from his international service in education, he acted as Governor of Barbados and was the country’s fourth Governor General. Sir Frank held, among other posts, the presidency of the Caribbean Congress of Labour, Board Member of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, member of the Governing Body of the ILO, was President of the Senate in Barbados, was Barbados’ first Ambassador to the United Nations and also acted as Governor General. Sir Roy Trotman, following in the footsteps of his predecessors, has presided over the Caribbean Congress of Labour, the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the Governing Body of the ILO and went one step farther, by being elected Chairman of the Workers Group of the ILO – the only person from the Hemisphere to have held the two latter posts. The incumbent General Secretary, Toni Moore, the first woman to be elected to the post, is a member of the Governing Body at the ILO, is deputy President of the Trade Union Confederation of America (TUCA) and is a member of other Trade Union bodies. 

Other Trade Union staff members, as well as Executive Council members, have had their contribution noted and have chosen to provide leadership and guidance for workers in the region, especially in areas like Occupational Safety and Health, Labour Education, and Shop Stewards Training.
Over the years the B.W.U. has either consciously embarked upon new and additional initiatives, or have had these initiatives fall into our paths. We embarked on a “housing Programme” to encourage the masses to invest in better, healthier living accommodation.
We moved to encourage workplaces to invest in Medicare Plans for staff. We have introduced or assisted in introducing healthy life/work activities for staff. We have sought and got agreement on a Tripartite Social Partnership structure intended to improve national economic growth in tandem with national social development.

The lists goes on.