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July 27, 1937 - A Landmark Event for the Workers' Movement

This year marked the 80th anniversary of the occurrence of the July 26, 1937 Disturbances in Barbados which is listed as one of the most significant events in the history of our nation. It was on July 26, 1937, eight decades ago that the so-called “barefooted masses” in Barbados, starting in Bridgetown and spreading across the island, arose from 300 years of pent up fury and rebelled against three centuries of starvation, shabby housing, abysmally poor health and educational standards, and political disenfranchisement.

These injustices were heaped upon the labouring classes by a callous and oppressive Oligarchy, made up of the planters and merchant class, backed by an indifferent Colonial Government at home and an unresponsive Parliament in Britain.

The events of July 26, 1937 led to revolutionary changes in the governance of Barbados following the dispatch of the Royal West India Commission to the British West Indies which had its sittings in Queen’s Park in early 1939 and the local Deane Commission, both of which investigated the circumstances surrounding the civil unrests on the island and which were part of a wider upsurge which began in St. Kitts in 1934 and ended in British Guiana in 1939.

Two of the most important and immediate decisions arising from the Disturbances were the recommendations to enact Labour legislation in Parliament which led to the establishment of the Labour Department (in 1940) and the Barbados Workers’ Union (in October 4, 1941) following the passing of the Trade Union Act in 1939, and its coming into force a year later.

The B.W.U. has been joining forces with the Clement Payne Movement in commemorating the event and this year laid a wreath in honour of the passing of Clement Payne, the key character in the disturbances as well his lieutenants and others who fell in the disturbances.

In this commemorative year, as in past years, there was tepid support for the July 26 memorial, which forced The Report of the Executive Council to the B.W.U.’s 76th Annual Delegates’ Conference to make the point that as the Council reflected on the events that triggered the social, economic and political transformation of Barbados, one could be justified in asking the profound question which was used as the theme under which the Clement Payne Movement observed on the day, “What has become of the social revolution that the people of Barbados started in 1937?”

The Report called on Barbadians to reflect soberly on what has become of the struggle of our forbearers to create a democratic state in which the sons and daughters of slaves can participate in the governance of Barbados and asked the questions:

  1. “Are we living their sacrifice with pride?
  2. “Have we benefitted by learning from the experiences of the period in which they lived?
  3. “Are there yet too many parallels which still exist from the period, eighty years ago and the present?
  4. “Must we go back to come forward to the time of the Disturbances?
  5. ”Is the Barbados Worker’ Union justified in its function as the pressure groups which speaks for the oppressed?”

The Report suggested that, regrettably, there are too many parallels between what led to the uprisings of eighty years ago and now and that many of the acute problems that made life difficult for the working class still exist.

According to the Report, the Executive Council is challenging the Union’s membership that “the Future We Want lies largely in our ability to organise around these negative forces so that we are easily recognised as the organization that can be trusted.

The Executive Council recognises that the Barbados Workers’ Union will only be trusted as a force for change when we can embrace and answer some uncomfortable questions. These include:

  • How will the B.W.U. be able to formulate a response around the implementation of technology and its implications on the workforce
  • How will the B.W.U. ensure the preservation of worker rights when there is ever increasing focus on worker flexibility as the new global model which is accompanied by new forms of employment that undermine established worker protection?
  • How will the B.W.U. be able to navigate around the popular government and private sector stance that Labour Standards and Workers’ Rights Clauses will drive them away?
  • Can the B.W.U. provide an appropriate counter to, and cover fro, the process of massive restructuring and the constant downsizing which have been undermining existing employment as well as working and living conditions?
  • Is there a place of influence for the B.W.U. in discussions surrounding environmental sustainability?

The report noted that for the past year the Executive Council has been agonizing over how best to tackle these and other concerns. We have responded to the challenge to reaffirm hope to many who are hopeless so that they can rely on the Barbados Workers’ Union to effect positive change for them and their families, thereby altering the public perception that nothing will change when we take a stand.

The Report stated that it is clear that we are at a crossroad in our economy, in our politics and within our Labour Movement. It stated that old certainties no longer held true and reflected that since the last Annual delegates’ Conference, this is as much an observance nationally, as internationally, where a number of what may be termed “black swan” events have overtaken to become reality. The Report listed the Trump presidency in the UA and the rapid decline in popularity of the Home Secretary in Britain who took over as Prime Minister with a mandate to lead the Brits into their “Brexit” from the European Union and to a better Britain, to the involvement of the church in gay pride rallies, history has been altered by new approaches.

The Report emphasised that the B.W.U. has had to remain mindful that establishments and conventions are particularly vulnerable when they do not respond to people; when they fail to have their interest intersect with the need and wants of the people. What separate the winners from the losers in the end are the skill, clarity and enduring relevance of decisions to the lives and future of people.