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Respect: The Most Conspicuous Gain- Sir Grantley

As the Barbados Workers’ Union prepares for the celebration of its 77th anniversary on Thursday, October 4th, 2018, it is appealing to all members to reflect on the impressive efforts of its Founding Fathers who sacrificed much to build the Labour Movement, and, who, in doing so, initiated the social, economic and transformation of this the island.

The B.W.U.’s founding president, The Rt. Excellent Sir Grantley Herbert Adams, writing in the Union’s Fifth Anniversary publication of 1946, deemed RESPECT to be “the single most conspicuous gain by the Barbadian worker since the formation of the Union on October 4, 1941. Sir Grantley wrote: ‘If I had to single out one conspicuous gain by the worker in these past years I should unhesitatingly say “RESPECT”. The worker has acquired more self-respect than was formerly his, and has merited and obtained the respect of the employing class.”

At the first glance of Sir Grantley’s statement, today’s reader may be taken aback at the fact that he chose RESPECT as the single most conspicuous gain by the worker during the first five years of the Union’s existence; but to fully appreciate Sir Grantley’s assessment of the period, we must have a clear understanding of what the social, economic and political environment in which labouring classes existed, prior to the disturbances of 1937, and of the formation the Barbados Workers’ Union in 1941. First of all, there was a glaring divide between Capital and labouring classes. The stark reality is that life for the labouring classes in Barbados had differed very little in the hundred-year period following Emancipation in 1838 and the Disturbances in 1937.

First of all, the House of Assembly, as were all of the social institutions, was controlled by the Oligarchs – the powerful planter and the merchant class. In fact historians state that West Indian governments were identified with planter interests; so the worker had little voice. Chrissie Brathwaite of the Barbados Progressive League, Erskine Ward and Hilton Vaughan were among the very few people of colour who had won seats in the House in the 1920s, and none of them sat in the Legislative Council.

The wages paid to workers were totally inadequate – around one shilling six cents per day for agricultural workers, their housing was dilapidated, the health service was poor, many workers suffered from communicable disease and access to education by children of the working class beyond the Elementary school level was uncommon. The truth was that the average worker had no supportive institution to turn to, to air his grievances. He was basically voiceless.

Lord Moyne, who chaired the Royal West India Commission, which investigated the Disturbances, speaking in Queen’s Park, Barbados, to members of the local Sugar Group, said that from the Report of the local Deane Commission on the Riots, it was common property that the wages paid to certain labourers were inadequate for any proper standard of life and that the labourers had first and urgent claim as soon as any improvement in the conditions of the industry occurred.

Reformers, like Samuel Jackman Prescod, a defender of human rights, had won a few rights for the Coloured Barbadian during the 1800s, and in the 1920s Clennel Wickham, the crusading editor of the Herald newspaper, and Dr. Charles Duncan O’Neal, through his political party, Democratic League and trade union, the Workingmen’s Association, had sought redress for the working class. In fact historian, F.A. Hoyos has written that it was Wickham’s writings that brought about “the great political awakening” in the late 1920s. Wickham was described as “the greatest interpreter of the needs and aspirations of the average man” which Barbados had known for many years.

But beginning in the 1940s, the workers, through the valiant and persistent efforts of the Barbados Workers’ Union, was able, finally, to sit at the bargaining table with the once intractable employers, a change brought about by the vigour of the leadership of Grantley Adams and Hugh Springer, and the enactment of legislation in the House of Assembly, which led to the setting of the Labour Department, the appointment of the first Labour Commissioner and the enactment of the Trade Union Act. These changes followed the recommendations made by the local Deane Commission and the Lord Moyne Commission.

Thus, in a matter of four years’ time, starting in the year 1937, when the Disturbances occurred, to 1941, when the Barbados Workers’ Union became the first trade union to be registered on the island, Barbados underwent a revolutionary transformation.

Let’s reflect on the events that led to the transformation of the social order: the disturbances occurred in 1937, the Royal West India Commission had its hearings in Queen’s Park in 1938, the Trade Union Act was passed in 1939, the Act came into force in 1940 and the B.W.U. was formed in 1941 and by 1942, the B.W.U. was taking strike action against the Barbados Foundry which reverberated across the island. When, therefore, we say that the history of modern Barbados began with the coming into being of the Progressive League and the formation of the Barbados Workers’ Union – the facts are there to support our statement.

The voice of Labour was further strengthened through the Bushe Experiment which saw Grantley Adams, the then undisputed leader of the reform grouping and Hugh Springer sitting on the Governor in Executive Committee which gave the workers a voice at the highest level in Barbados. Adams, as leader of the Barbados Labour Party, went on to become the first Premier of Barbados in 1954.

In summarising his reflection of the first five years of the Union, Sir Grantley, who was then President of the Barbados Labour Party, an off-shoot of the Barbados Progressive League and also President of the BWU, the League’s economic section, was of the opinion that the members of the Union could look back with justifiable pride on its outstanding achievements in the five years of its existence.

Guy Perrin, Barbados’ first Labour Commissioner, commenting on the Union’s fifth anniversary, stated that as the first trade union to register under the Trade Union Act of 1939, the Barbados Worker’ Union had earned a place in the history of the island. He added that the Union had established amicable relations with the employers and employers’ organisations in the discussion of matters mutually affecting them and this fact was a tribute to the manner in which the affairs if the Union had been conducted.