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The Early Years of the BWU
Thursday, 30 August 2018 10:43

The contribution of the Barbados Workers’ Union (B.W.U) to the development of modern Barbados is matchless and the convening of the B.W.U.’s 77th Annual Delegates’ Conference, provides the opportunity for all workers in Barbados to reflect on the bold, inspired and sacrificial efforts of the men who built the Union and successfully charted its path over the past seven decades; and to pay tribute to their legacy.

Sadly, while much has been written on the B.W.U.’s first president general, (Rt. Excellent Sir) Grantley Herbert Adams and its first general secretary, (Rt. Excellent Sir) Hugh Worrell Springer on the weight of their national, regional and international roles, little has been recorded about the early members of the executive councils of the Union and or the foot soldiers. While we commend the “generals” for their imaginative and bold leadership, “armies” are also made up of those who are second in command as well as the foot soldiers; we therefore take this opportunity to salute all of the Labour pioneers for their sacrificial and meritorious work in building this great organisation, and by extension, Barbados.

While we acknowledge the efforts of the founding fathers in creating the B.W.U. as being far-sighted, it is difficult, almost eighty years after its genesis, to accurately state if the Union’s leaders were confident that their baby would have matured and have become a major influence in the life of this country, given the hardened and unyielding approach by the Oligarchs towards social, economic and political reform. And while the leaders of the B.W.U. may have been able, at that time, to rely on the support of the trade union movement and the progressive bodies in Britain, the Barbados of 1939 - when the Barbados Progressive League, itself, a nascent body, began to organise urban workers - was under the control of the merchants/planter class, who was stubbornly unwilling to cede political power to the sons and daughters of the working class. But grow the Union did, under the leadership of its determined founders, now National Heroes, Rt. Excellent Sir Grantley Herbert Adams, Rt. Excellent Sir Hugh Worrell Springer, who held the reins of president general and general secretary, respectively, and Treasurer, Hilton Augustus Coulston.

We must also bear in mind that joining a trade union in Barbados in the early 1940s at a time when the industrial relations system was in its embryonic stages and when the employers regarded trade unionists as heretics, was a risk-taking effort. Workers who dared to join trade unions often feared job loss or ostracism.

Adams, who like Springer, was educated at Harrison College, was a Barbados Scholar, Oxford Graduate and a barrister-at-law. Apart from his legal training, Springer was a member of The Fabian Society, a British socialist organisation whose purpose is to advance the principle of democratic socialism by way of gradualist and reformist effort in democracies, rather than by revolutionary overthrow. Hilton Coulston, who had the temperament of a pugilist, was an erudite elementary school teacher, who was also President of the All Blacks Football Club. They all held leadership roles in the Barbados Progressive League, which, along with the Congress Party, led by Wynter Crawford, was, at the time, carrying the fight to the Oligarchs for social, political and economic reform in Barbados.

The Trustees of the Union were J. Barry Springer, J.T.C. Ramsay and Caleb A. Mose, all of whom were members of the Progressive League.

The first members of the Executive Council of the Union were – Cossie Greenidge, MacDonald Brathwaite, representing the Foundry Engineers; C. Gibson and A. Gibson (Printers), Reynold Grant and Bourne (Longshoremen), C. Medford (Baker), O. Butcher and Dalrymple (Coopers) and Simmons (a seaman). It is to be noted that the B.W.U. Executive Council in its foundation days was basically made of three professional men – who held posts of Officers; and a ten-member Executive Council made up of city urban workers.

And, unlike modern times when the work of the Union is performed by a highly trained professional staff, its daily operations in the early 1940s, including grievance handling and negotiations were carried out by the Executive Council, led by the Officers – Sir Grantley, Sir Hugh and Hilton Coulston. The demands of the issues that were being brought before the Council forced the body to meet weekly on evenings, at times, during the early years, to deal with the many industrial relations matters, including grievances, which were emerging at a time when employers and workers were untrained in the field of industrial relations and there was little legislation from which to take lead.  That approach was moderated somewhat with the appointment in 1945 of Frank Walcott (later Rt. Excellent Sir Frank) as assistant to the General Secretary and subsequently the hiring of K.N.R. Husbands (later Sir Kenmore).

The events of July 26th, 1937, and succeeding days are important in the history of the Labour Movement in Barbados. The 1937 Disturbances in Barbados were part of a spontaneous expression of working class discontent in the region, which according to Dr. Francis Mark, in his “History of the Barbados Workers’ Union”, were a feature of almost every one of the British territories. Historian Robert Morris described them as a direct result of the appalling social and economic conditions under which the masses existed, as supported by the The Deane Commission in Barbados and The Royal West India Commission, known also as The Moyne Commission. The disturbances were also a result of a political system which gave its critics a voice to complain, but little avenue to ensue effective political action.

This period has been regarded as the beginning of the modern period of West Indian development. The commissions investigated the social unrest and recommended, among other things the establishment of trade unions. In the case of Barbados, the Trade Union Act was passed in 1939, it came into force in 1940 and the B.W.U. was registered on October 4, 1941. The B.W.U. was formed as the economic wing of the Barbados Progressive League which, from as early as 1939, had begun to organise workers in sectors such as the bakeries, the docks and the foundries.

Apart from the strong support provided by the British Trade Union Congress and the lobby by progressive groups in that country, such as the Fabian Society, the League of Coloured Peoples and the National Council for Civil Liberties, the voice of the workers was strengthened at home as three of the B.W.U. leaders – Adams, Springer and J.T.C. Ramsay – held seats in the House of Assembly in the early 1940s. Adams and Springer’s position in the House was later reinforced by Frank Leslie Walcott and K.N.R. Husbands, who represented the Parish of St. Peter.

It was a direct result of this disturbance that a new attitude to industrial relations in the Region became apparent. International horror at the disturbances aroused the British concern about the then British West Indies. The British authorities urged on by Labour advocates like Arthur Creech Jones in the House of Commons, sought to spur colonial assemblies, including that of Barbados, to awake from their torpor of neglect.

The B.W.U.’s Executive Council met for the first time on 25 February, 1942, at the headquarters of its parent body, the Barbados Progressive League, at the corner of Lucas and Swan Streets, the City. Attending that meeting were Grantley Adams, President, in the chair, Coulston, Treasurer, Hugh Springer, general secretary, Cossie Greenidge (engineer), MacDonald Brathwaite, the secretary of the Engineers’ Division, Gardiner Drakes, president of the Ships’ Carpenters’ Division, R. Oxley, Secretary of the Ships’ Carpenters’ Division.

Regrettably, by the time of the 2nd Annual Delegates’ Conference, held on 27 March, 1943, Caleb Mose, a founder member and Trustee had died. The Minutes reported that J.T. C. Ramsay, who was later to immigrate to the USA, “spoke with feeling” of Caleb A. Mose and Richard Evelyn (Engineers’ Division) whose death during the year had deprived the Union of loyal and steadfast workers.

The attendance at the 2nd Annual Delegates’ Conference showed an improvement over the 1st Annual Delegates’ Conference at which eighteen delegates attended. Some twenty-nine delegates attended the 2nd Annual Delegates’ Conference. What was strikingly important at the second conference was that three of the members of the Executive Council – Grantley Adams, Hugh Springer and J.T.C. Ramsay were members of the House of Assembly.

Additionally, at that time, the internationalisation of trade unionism was made very apparent by the passing of the B.W.U.’s resolution at the Conference on the death of Ronald Kidd, the founder and director of the National Council of Civil Liberties in England, one of the progressive groups which led a constant lobby in that country on the behalf of the emerging trade union and political bodies in the colonies.

Resolutions of sympathy were also passed to H.A. Coulston, B. W.U.  on the death of his wife; and Reynold Oxley, a member of the Council who was ill.


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