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The Barbados Workers' Union 1941-1956

At this the start of a new year, it is timely for us to reflect on the efforts made by the Barbados Workers’ Union in the reshaping of the social contours of Barbados over the past 80 years.

It is imperative for us to reflect on the taxing journey of the Barbados Workers’ Union for a number of reasons. In the first place, we have a young demographic who are growing up in a time of limitless opportunities as they are able to enjoy the fruits of the labour of the older generation. This segment of our population benefit from a standard of living which provides for privileges such as free secondary and tertiary education, free transportation to and from school, among others. But the irony is that a great many of our young people know little about the oppressive environment in which their fore parents grew up prior to, and even after, the birth of the trade union movement in Barbados. What motivates us, more so to speak to the impressive contribution of the Barbados Workers’ Union in reconfiguring the social, political and economic landscape of Barbados is the fact that we have reached the stage in our development where, some of those Barbadians, who have benefited significantly from the sacrifices made by the trade union movement in this country, over the past eight decades, take these hard-won achievements for granted.

For example, we read recently in a question-and answer column in one of our newspapers where two persons spurned the trade union movement; with one even describing trade unions as relics which are out of touch with the reality of modern times. But historical evidence proves them wrong each time.

Some of you may say to us, so, why bother to respond to such comments? We must counter because that attitude is revealing; it shows how the uninitiated are able to violate the tenets of reason, fail to grasp the course of history and spurn the valiant efforts of patriots like Samuel Jackman Prescod, Dr. Charles Duncan O’Neal, Clennel Wickham, Clement Payne and his lieutenants; Grantley Herbert Adams, Hugh Worrell Springer, and Frank Leslie Walcott who sacrificed much to set this country on the path of democracy and who opened the gates of privilege for this generation to live like free men and women.

The sacrificial work of the founding fathers as well as the transformative leadership of the Barbados Workers’ Union throughout the eight decades of the Labour Movement’s existence have been the catalysts which have redesigned the social, economic and political landscape of our island. We now live in a country, which, while not perfect, is one in which democratic institutions flourish and the voices of the sons and daughters of the once deprived masses can now be heard in every institution in Barbados. We owe that achievement to the Labour Movement.

With the voice of the people echoing in Parliament, the Labour Movement in Barbados has been able to lead in the transformation of our country by lobbying for, and or piloting, legislation to enable in the uplift of the working class – in every aspect of the governance of Barbados – politics, the church, education, commerce and sports. Any discerning Barbadian can speak to the fundamental changes which have allowed for career opportunities for the offspring of the once disadvantaged working class man and woman, changes brought about especially through access to education and progressive policy making by successive governments. Additionally, as a consequence of the tireless efforts of the Barbados Workers’ Union, we have on our statute books, ground-breaking legislation ranging from Holidays with Pay, Peaceful Picketing, Workmen’s Compensation, Minimum Wages for Shop Assistants to the Safety and Health at Work Act, National Insurance Act, and the Severance Payment Act, among others.

We can understand better where we now are as a people by reflection and comparison. Professor Sir Arthur Lewis in the book, “Labour in the West Indies”, provides us with a snap shot of the horrid conditions under which the labouring class lived prior to the establishment of trade unions in the Region. He noted that wages were low to the point that agricultural workers in islands like Barbados were being paid one shilling and three cents a day, the equivalent of 27 cents a day.

With regard to housing, it was noted that disrepair, absence of sanitary arrangements, high rents and overcrowding were the main four evils. A study revealed that in Barbados, two-thirds of the population lived in dwellings of two rooms or less. The typical case was to find the family living in a single room.

In terms of health, it was observed that malnutrition played havoc with productive efficiency and resistance to disease, and that there were thousands of people too poor to eat as much as was necessary…that West Indians were “prey to a number of diseases which weaken but do not kill, especially malaria, yaws, hookworm and venereal disease”.

Insofar as social legislation was concerned, there was practically no legislation concerning housing or working conditions, and no unemployment or health insurance and old age pensions were only just beginning to make their appearance…

The history of the trade union movement in Barbados spans a period of almost eighty years and marks an era in the relationships between employer and employee that can be described as revolutionary. The occurrence of the disturbances in Barbados in 1937, which formed part of the upheavals in the then British West Indies between 1934 and 1939, was responsible for the trade union movement coming into being. By 1939, the start of World War 11, there was developing in Barbados the machinery of collective bargaining under the aegis of the Barbados Progressive League, the parent body of the Barbados Labour Party and the Barbados Workers’ Union. The passing of the Trade Union Act in 1939, which came into force in 1940, provided legal sanction for the Barbados Workers’ Union to be registered on October 4, 1941.

The Barbados Workers’ Union started with three functioning divisions: the Ships’ Carpenters, the Barbados Foundry Mechanics and the Central Foundry Mechanics. These three pioneer divisions, all of which were based in the urban areas, held the fort valiantly until 1944, following a strike at the Barbados Foundry, which gave a new lease of life to the Union. This strike was called in support of McDonald Brathwaite, a senior workman at the Barbados Foundry, who was secretary of the Foundry’s division and member of the Union’s Executive Council, who was dismissed. His dismissal was considered by the Union as a part of the Foundry’s method of intimidation.

Also of significance regarding the year, 1944, was that there was a reduction in the income qualifications for the franchise from 50 pounds sterling per annum to 20 pounds sterling per annum. This constitutional breakthrough strengthened the workers’ voice in the running of the country, given that a wider section of our society was able to vote.

The general election following the constitutional change saw the removal of the sugar barons and the princes of trade from their political seats of power. The Barbados Labour Party, under the leadership of Grantley Adams (now Rt. Excellent Sir Grantley), was returned with 8 seats, the Congress Party, led by Wynter Algernon Crawford, won 8 seats and the Electors’ Association also won 8 seats. As the voice of the people was not consolidated, however, the Conservatives were able to manipulate the situation for some time.

Sir Hugh Springer, the founding General Secretary of the Barbados Workers’ Union, speaking in 1956, at a ceremony which marked the opening of the renovated B.W.U. headquarters at the corner of Nelson/Fairchild Street (now the home of the BWU Credit Union), placed these events in perspective. He explained that the disturbances which had taken place in the West Indies were an expression of dissatisfaction with the economic and social conditions in the area and had resulted in the appointment of the Royal West India Commission in 1938 to investigate the conditions in the region. He detailed the development resulting from the disturbances which released what he described as “the upsurge of political energy” which was harnessed by the formation in the region of political parties and trade unions.

The Barbados Progressive League was formed in 1938, with Chrissie Brathwaite, as its first president. Chrissie Brathwaite held the City Seat in the House of Assembly. The Barbados Progressive League, the parent body of the Barbados Labour Party and the Barbados Workers’ Union, had a membership at that time of 23 000. Sir Hugh, a Barbados Scholar, then fresh from his legal studies in Britain, joined the League in 1939.

Sir Hugh considered himself fortunate that he had grown up in time to take part in many great and crucial events in the history of Barbados and the West Indies. He recalled that the first achievement of the Barbados Progressive League was entering candidates for the 1940 general elections to the House of Assembly as a political party on a programme. This, he said, was the beginning of party politics in Barbados. The next step, he added was to organise the Barbados Workers’ Union.

Sir Hugh described the period between 1940, the year the Trade Union Act came into force, and 1947, when he resigned the post of General Secretary of the Union to become the first Registrar of the University College of the West Indies, in Jamaica, as “hard years, years of sweat and tears – and blood too, if you reckon the shortening of life that results from burning the candle at both ends, as we did continuously in those days”.

To understand Sir Hugh’s point regarding the rigour of their work, it must be understood that between 1941, the year in which the Union was founded and 1945, when Frank Walcott (now Rt. Excellent Sir Frank) was hired in the post of Assistant to the General Secretary to become the first employee of the Union, the organisation’s work was carried on, on evenings, by the Officers of the Union and members of the Executive Council. So, it was a hard grind for Sir Grantley Adams, the President General and Sir Hugh, the general secretary, who were full-time legal practitioners, as well as the members of the Executive Council who were involved in grievance handling.

But Sir Hugh, in sober reflection, made a profound statement. He said: “It is a good thing for us all to look back now and then and to take stock of the ground which we have covered. It is dangerous to take for granted the advantages with which we find ourselves surrounded and forget the effort that was needed to bring them into being”.

Sir Hugh recalled that Sir Grantley Adams, commenting on the Fifth Anniversary of the Barbados Workers’ Union in 1946, had emphasised that the conspicuous gain of the workers through the years was “respect”. Sir Grantley stated that the worker had acquired more self respect than was formerly his and had merited and obtained the respect of the employing class. Sir Hugh’s view was that trade unions existed not only to extract material rewards and benefits from unwilling employers, for members, but trade unions enabled workers to preserve their dignity as people.

We have to bear in mind that prior to unionism in Barbados, the workforce had absolutely no voice in the workplace.

Sir Hugh commented on the comradeship between the workers which resulted from what he described as the hard work resulting from the Engineers strike at the Barbados Foundry in 1944 and the events of 1945. Sir Hugh said the Foundry strike was an experience which no unionist, who went through it, would ever forget. He said the workers demonstrated they were not “chubs” as the employers imagined.

Sir Hugh also referred to the first Caribbean Labour Congress Conference which was held in Barbados in 1945. This conference was attended by some of the iconic Caribbean Labour leaders of the day, including Vere Cornwall Bird (Antigua), Robert Llewellyn Bradshaw (St. Kitts/Nevis), Albert Gomes(Trinidad), George McIntosh (St. Vincent), Hubert Chrichlow (British Guiana), and Richard Hart (Jamaica) who came as a substitute for Norman Manley.

On the personal level, Sir Hugh made mention of many of the past generation and contemporaries who had made their contribution to the founding and the progress of the Labour Movement in Barbados. He spoke of Dr. Charles Duncan O’Neale, the founder of the Workingmen’s Association and the Democratic League, Sir Grantley Adams, who he said, was ready at a time when the people needed a leader, who would both be a symbol of their emancipation and their “Moses”; Richard Evelyn, a factory mechanic, who gave his life to the Labour Movement and officers and members of the BWU Executive Council such James (J.T.C.) Ramsay, Barry Springer, Caleb Mose (Trustees), Horace Barker, C.A. Bushell, H. Gardner Drakes, G.B. Burnett, H.T. Williams, E. Walcott, G. Small and E. L Alleyne

And among friends overseas, Sir Hugh mentioned Sir Walter Citrine (later Lord Citrine), a former General Secretary of the British Trade Union Congress (TUC) and member of the Royal West India Commission whose advice the Barbados Workers’ Union took in the matter of forming one union with branches or divisions.

Sir Hugh expressed the personal pride he took in Frank Walcott’s achievements and stated his presence in the Union was more to his influence than that of any other person. He recalled that when he left Barbados to join the staff of the University College of the West Indies in 1947, he was confident that the work of the Union was in safe hands. And that time had shown how right he was.

The foregoing was a mere snap shot of the efforts of the Barbados Workers’ Union during its formative years, from its beginnings in 1941 to 1956. Since that fifteen-year period the Barbados Workers’ Union entered a new era in which its leadership broadened its scope by its representation on regional and international bodies and which allowed the organisation to redouble its efforts to improve the living and working conditions of its members.

We will continue to share those achievements with you.