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The 76th Anniversary of The Barbados Workers' Union

Wednesday, October 4, marked the 76th anniversary of the Barbados Workers’ Union, and it was more than instructive that, on the day when the Union was observing its 76th birthday, it was engrossed in a ten-hour struggle at the bargaining table, following a week-long strike, for workers’ rights. Wednesday’s exercise typified the seven decades of its the matchless struggle in which the Barbados Workers’ Union has been engaged in its unparalleled efforts to transform the social, political and economic landscape of Barbados.

The evidence of the Barbados Worker’ Union’s contribution to the social, political and economic development of Barbados is clearly observed when the post-1937 social, political and economic make-up of Barbados and the living standards of the average Barbadian are compared to the oppressive conditions in which the average Barbadian existed between the period 1838, at Emancipation, and 1937 when the social rebellion of the masses on the island, which was triggered by the deportation of the Trinidad-born labour activist Clement Osbourne Payne. The political lobby by Labour leaders in Parliament, when added to the benefits accrued from collective bargaining process, acted as a spur to the social, economic and political development of our country.

A significant number of social and labour legislation, such as Workers’ Compensation, Holidays with Pay, Maternity Leave, National Insurance, Severance Payment, to name a few, has either been lobbied for, or piloted by trade union practitioners. And so it may be agreed that the efforts of the Barbados Workers’ Union in lifting the living and working standards of the once disenfranchised working class have brought benefits to the entire country.

That apart, the leadership of the Barbados Worker’ Union has made significant contribution in several spheres of development at home, regionally and internationally. Sir Grantley Herbert Adams, the first president general of the BWU, became the first premier of Barbados and the first and only Prime Minister of the ill-fated Federation of the West Indies and Sir Hugh Worrell Springer, the B.W.U.’s first general Secretary served as the first Registrar of the University College of the West Indies.

Sir Frank Leslie Walcott, who succeeded Sir Hugh as general secretary of the BWU in 1948, went on to serve as president of the Caribbean Congress of Labour, Vice President of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and Member of the Governing Body of the International Labour Organisation.

Sir Roy Trotman, Sir Frank’s successor in office, was founder of the Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations of Barbados, President of the Caribbean Congress of Labour, Chairman of the Workers’ Group of the ILO and President of the ICFTU.

Toni Moore, the B.W.U.’s current General Secretary now sits on the ILO’s Governing Body.

A name which is perhaps lesser known is that of Kenmore Husbands. Sir Kenmore, better known as Sir K.N.R. Husbands, was an assistant to the BWU General Secretary, who became the first black Speaker of the Barbados House of Assembly. He was a Parliamentary representative for the parish of St. Peter.

Other BWU staff members who entered Parliament were J.T.C. Ramsay, one of the B.W.U.’s first Trustees, Evelyn Greaves, who also served as High Commissioner to Canada, Sir Roy Trotman, and Robert L. Morris, the current Ambassador to CARICOM. Yvonne Walkes, former Senator, now serves as Barbados’ High Commissioner to Canada.

The Barbados Workers’ Union, the first legal trade union organisation to be registered on the island, was conceived in a period of ferment in the then British West Indies when workers across the region were engaged in a fervent struggle to throw off the yoke of political bondage in which they were trapped by the Oligarchs. for three hundred years. That struggle began in 1934 with disturbances in St. Kitts and ended in 1939 in the then British Guiana. The July 26, 1937 civil unrests sparked the change in Barbados which led to the setting up of the Deane Commission and subsequently the Royal West India Commission which investigated the disturbances which took place in the broader West Indies.

In Great Britain, the former colonial master, trade unionism can trace its birth to the exigencies arising out of the industrial revolution. In Barbados the dramatic upheaval in 1937 was responsible for the coming into being of the movement and by the time the nations were at war in 1939 there was developing the machinery of collective bargaining.

In accordance with the advice of Sir Walter Citrine, the General Secretary of the British Trade Union Congress (TUC), who was a member of the Royal Commission which investigated the disturbances in the region in the late 1930s, the Barbados Workers’ Union was, from its inception, organised into a number of divisions with a central executive council elected by the annual delegates’ conference, which is the ultimate governing body of the Union.

Before the passing of the Trade Union Act, the Barbados Progressive League, the parent body of the Barbados Worker’ Union had already organised several groups of workers and was actively engaged on their behalf. When the Trade Union Act came into force in 1940, bakers, printers, coopers, longshoremen, engineers, and seamen were ready to make a formal start. On registration on October 4, 1941, the first officers were Grantley Herbert Adams, president, Hilton Augustus Coulston, Treasurer, Hugh Worrell Springer, general secretary, with Caleb Mose, J. B. Springer and James T. C. Ramsay as Trustees. Members of the Executive Council were Chaucer Greenidge, McD. Brathwaite (Engineers), Clyde Gibson, Alphonso Gibson (Printers), Reynold Grant, Cleophas Bourne (Longshoremen), C. Medford (Baker), O. Butcher and Dalrymple (Coopers) and T. Symmonds (Seamen).

The Barbados Workers’ Union was created to pave the way for the dispossessed masses and so its very reason for being demands that it will run against the mainstream of society. If we accept that a trade union is an organisation created by and run by workers to protect themselves at work, to improve the conditions of their work, then we must also accept that the trade will, at times, be on a collision course with those who control wealth and power as well as their appendages.

So, what you may hear on the radio naysayers or read in the Press ought not to be disturbing. Just check the records.