When we reflect on the minutes of the meetings of the Barbados Workers’ Union, held in 1941 and 1942, the organisation’s nascent years, we often wonder what the mood was like in the room where the meetings were held. We also wonder what was the thinking of the pioneer leaders of the Union, the then Grantley Adams, the first president general, Hugh Springer, the first general secretary, and the lesser known, Hilton Coulston, a teacher by profession, who held the office of treasurer.
Did Adams, Springer, Coulston and the other pioneers who comprised the first Executive Council of the Union as well as the general membership of the Union, really believe, considering the hostile environment surrounding the Union’s birth, that this infant, they called the Barbados Workers’ Union, could have grown into what it is today?
Was it in their wildest dreams that the Union could have taken on the leadership role of the transformation of Barbados, i.e., moving the island from the feudal-like community into a leader of the workers’ movement in the Caribbean?
Fortunately, most of the pioneer leaders lived long enough to see some of their dreams realised, that is, to see Barbados achieve Cabinet Status in the mid 1950s, see Barbados play a major part in the formation of the Federation of the West Indies – 1958 to 1962, ill-fated though it was, and to see Barbados gain political independence from Britain in 1966; and Sir Grantley, Sir Hugh, Sir Frank, and latterly Sir Roy Trotman all achieved leadership positions at the local, regional and international levels in the Labour Movement.
The B.W.U. was formally registered on October 4, 1941, 73 years ago, and so, even though we have access to the minutes of some of those early meetings which inform us of the challenging labour issues that came before the Executive Council for discussion and settlement, there is still a great of deal mystique about those early days, we think, for a number of reasons.
It is to be recalled that In the immediate years following the Disturbances (also called the Riots), which rocked the British West Indies from 1934 until 1939, Barbados and the other colonies in the British West Indies were just about emerging from a three-hundred year period of oppressive rule by the planter/merchant oligarchs who stifled the liberation and creativity of the of the labouring class. That period was characterised by economic stagnation and the shameful squalor among the labouring classes. Sir Arthur Lewis in “Labour in the West Indies – the Birth of a Workers’ Movement” paints the picture of the British West Indies in the 1930s in this way: “Despair, absence of sanitary arrangements, high rents and overcrowding are the four main evils”. So, notwithstanding the incremental changes that had taken place between in the month of July, 1937, when the disturbances took place in Barbados, and the period 1938 to 1939 when the Labour Department and Trade Union bills were debated in Parliament, in Barbados, there still must have been much uncertainty in the minds of the emerging progressive thinkers as well as their followers about the future.
In addition, in the early 1940s World War 11 was at its most savage point with German Nazism under Adolf Hitler overrunning Western Europe with devastating effect, and with the war on, the nascent Labour Movement in Barbados had to tread carefully as the island was still under the hands of the Colonial Government.
In the intervening period, Adams, now Rt. Excellent Sir Grantley, Hugh Springer, now Rt. Excellent Sir, Hugh, along with their successor, Frank Walcott, now Rt. Excellent Sir Frank, all National Heroes, laboured tirelessly to lay down a solid foundation for the functioning of the Trade Union Movement and the fostering of democracy in Barbados. It is also an indisputable fact that the Barbados Workers’ Union’s efforts through the medium of collective bargaining, as well as in democratising of the workplace, improving wage levels, upgrading the conditions of work for the labour force, in addition to lobbying for, and piloting social and labour legislation have been among some of the pillars on which the standard of living of the people of Barbados – rich and poor - rests.
Additionally, ground-breaking labour legislation such as vacation leave, maternity leave, severance payments and national insurance, all of which some Barbadians take for granted, today, have all been piloted by the Barbados Workers’ Union and it is these revolutionary pieces of legislation that have contributed to the enrichment of the lives of all Barbadians and which have also contributed to the overall stability of the country.
Seventy three years later, we are entering another period in the development of the Barbados Workers’ Union. Readers will recall that, at the Union’s 73rd Annual Delegates’ Conference, held in August, last year, Comrade Toni Moore was elected as the general secretary of the Barbados Workers’ Union.
Comrade Moore succeeded Senator Sir Roy Trotman, who held the reins of leadership of the Union from 1992 until last year when he retired. Comrade Toni Moore became the fourth general secretary of the Union, thus following in the huge footsteps of Sir Hugh Springer, Sir Frank Walcott and Sir Roy Trotman; and her election created history, she being the first woman to hold that post.
On Sunday, February 15, Comrade Moore will be meeting with all committees of management of the Barbados Workers’ Union at “Solidarity House”. That meeting will start at 9:00 a.m. and it will be examining ways whereby the Union can continue in its seventy three-year mission to strengthen the organization and at the same time transform the lives of the workers of Barbados and their families. The meeting will consider a number of new and different approaches which may be used to stabilise the labour environment over the coming years.
With this in mind, the committees of management of the Union divisions, drawn from across the island will be asked to:
- put together views for the new National Budget;
- examine safety nets for membership, for example, the establishment of a medical plan and pension arrangements for members; and
- reaffirm the Barbados Workers’ Union’s position regarding the 24 X 7 work week.
The forthcoming committee of management meeting on Sunday, 15 February provides the opportunity for another generation of Barbados Workers’ Union members to plot the future course for members of the Union and the country at large. Therefore, when we reflect on the work done by the pioneers of the movement and we credit them for their vision, boldness and sacrificial efforts, those of us, who make up the present day leadership of the Barbados Workers’ Union, we too, have a serious responsibility, firstly, to continue the legacy of those who have gone before us; and, also, to endeavour to secure a viable future for the workforce of today and tomorrow through the strengthening of the Barbados Workers’ Union and the wider labour movement.