Labor Organizations

Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

Political experience emerged directly from the difficult growth of labor organizations throughout the Caribbean. Trade unionization derived from the plethora of mutual aid and benevolent societies that existed from the period of slavery among the Afro-Caribbean population. Not having the vote or a representative in power, the lower classes used these societies for their mutual social and economic assistance. To obtain political leverage, the working and employed classes had only two recourses: the general strike and the riot.

From time to time some of these strikes were widespread enough to bring the plight of the masses to the attention of the Colonial Office and forced significant changes in the constitutional order. Such was the case with the so-called Water Riots of Trinidad in 1903, which began as middle-class dissatisfaction over the colonial government's attempt to install water meters and reduce wastage. The municipal Ratepayers Association, a solidly middle-class organization, appealed to the working and unemployed classes of the city of Port of Spain. An excited mob assembled outside the legislative council's office, resulting in an altercation in which sixteen people were killed and forty-three injured by reckless police shooting, and the office of the legislature was burned to the ground. After the usual official inquiry, the Colonial Office gradually agreed to the insistent demands of a number of middleand working-class organizations for the restoration of an elected city council which was put in place between 1914 and 1918.

Another such riot occurred in Demerara, British Guiana, in 1905. Starting as a localized dispute over wages by some stevedores in Georgetown, it quickly spread to sugarfield workers, factory workers, domestics, bakers, and porters, engulfing an ever-widening area beyond the city limits. The causes of the disturbance were essentially economic, and the workers--as opposed to their middleclass sympathizers--lacked any organizational structure. Nevertheless, the governor of the colony called out the military forces to put down the disturbances, causing seven deaths and a score of serious injuries. Although the riots failed to achieve their economic goals, for a few days they brought together a great number of the middle and lower classes. The middle-class leadership of some elements of the working classes which resulted gave some impetus to the development of a trade union movement. The coincidence of these riots throughout the British Caribbean created an impression in Britain that the political administration of the colonies required greater attention--an impression reinforced with each commission report issued thereafter.

Between 1880 and 1920, the Caribbean witnessed a proliferation of organizations, despite the authorities' marked coolness to them. A number represented middle-class workers such as teachers, banana growers, coconut growers, cacao farmers, cane farmers, rice farmers, lime growers, and arrowroot growers. Sometimes, as in the case of the Ratepayers Association in Trinidad, they had overtly middle-class political aspirations: a widening of the political franchise to allow more of their members access to political office. However, more and more workers were forming unions and agitating for improvements in their wages and working conditions. Furthermore, as in the cases of the 1905 riots, the two sets of organizations worked in concert--although the martyrs to the cause were singularly from the working and unemployed classes. One reason why the two sets of organizations--middle class and working class-- could work together was their common belief that political reform of the unjust and anachronistic colonial administrative system was the major element needed to achieve their divergent goals. They realized that historically the governors had worked with a small and unrepresentative segment of the old planter class serving their narrow economic ends. To the middle classes and the workers--and to a certain extent the masses of urban unemployed--social and economic justice would be possible only if they secured control of the political machinery, and there were only two ways to gain that control: through persuasion or by force.

To a great degree, this conviction still exists among the populations of the Caribbean. It was given further authenticity when the British Labour Party, especially the Fabian wing of the party, expressed sympathy with this view. But the Fabians did more. They actively sought to guide these fledgling political associations along a path of "responsible reform," thereby hoping to avert revolutionary changes. After World War I, the Fabians grew more influential--as did the British Labour Party--in British politics. The experience of both the Boer War and World War I strengthened the anti-imperialists within Britain and weakened Britain's faith in its ability to rule far-flung colonies of diverse peoples. There was even less enthusiasm for colonial domination when the administrative costs exceeded the economic returns. The result of this ambivalence about empire was a sincere attempt to rule constitutionally and openly. British critics of colonial rule expressed their opinions freely, and even the government reports (Blue Books) produced annually on each colony detailed shortcomings of bureaucrats and policies. Nevertheless, talking about West Indian problems was not the same as doing something about them, and by the 1930s, it was clear that British colonial policy was intellectually bankrupt.

Throughout the 1920s and the 1930s, British labor unions had sought to guide and encourage formation of West Indian affiliates. As a result, unionization was common throughout the region, with many of the unions formally or informally affiliated with the British Trade Union Congress. However, Fabian tutelage and reformist policies appeared to have failed when workers broke out in spontaneous demonstrations throughout the region, beginning in St. Kitts in 1935 and culminating with Jamaica (and British Guiana) in 1938. A hastily dispatched Royal Commission, dominated by Fabians and chaired by Lord Moyne (hence called the Moyne Commission), toured the region and reported on the dismal conditions, making strong recommendations for significant political reform. The Moyne Commission noted as causes of the riots increased politicization of workers in the region, deriving from the war experiences of West Indian soldiers, the spread of elementary education, and the influence of industrial labor unrest in the United States. After the riots, the reforms sought by the union of the middle classes and the workers were formalized. In 1940 the British Parliament passed the Colonial Development Welfare Act, the first foreign assistance program legislated specifically for the islands. The British government also extended the franchise to all adults over the age of twenty-one and set about building the apparatus for modified self-government with greater local participation.

Jamaica held its first general election under universal adult suffrage in 1944, and the other territories followed soon thereafter. The alliance of professionals and labor leaders easily captured the state apparatus from the old combination of planters and bureaucrats. Thus, in most colonies a very close bond developed between the political parties and the workers' unions. In Jamaica, the Jamaica Labour Party drew its basic support from the Bustamante Industrial Trades Unions. Its rival, the People's National Party, was at first affiliated with the Trades Union Council, and after the purge of the radicals in 1951, created the National Workers' Union--the popular base that catapulted Michael Manley to political eminence in 1972 (see Historical Setting, ch. 2). In Barbados, the Barbados Labour Party depended in the early days on the mass base of the members of the Barbados Workers' Union. Likewise, labor unions formed the catalyst for the successful political parties of Vere Bird in Antigua, Robert Bradshaw in St. Kitts, and Eric Gairy in Grenada (see Government and Politics on individual countries, ch. 4 and ch. 5). The notable exception was Eric Williams in Trinidad. His Peoples' National Movement, established in 1956, succeeded despite a constant struggle against a sharply divided collection of strong unions (see Historical Setting, ch. 3).

Beginning after World War II and lasting until the late 1960s, a sort of honeymoon existed between the political parties and the labor unions. Expanding domestic economies allowed substantial concessions of benefits to workers, whose real wages increased significantly as unionization flourished.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress