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BWU Celebrates Seventy Years

A Review of the First Five Years – 1941 to 1946

The Barbados Workers’ Union will celebrate the 77th anniversary of its registration on Thursday, October 4th. in another twelve days.

Today, we pay tribute to the Union’s founding fathers, sung and unsung, who took a bold stance against the might of the ruling class to establish the first successful bulwark in Barbados in defence of the labouring classes. Honour is due also to those courageous men and women who, over the past seven decades, have stood solidly behind the Union in seeking to give a voice to the once voiceless masses. We honour these stalwarts because there are too many Barbadians who behave as if the lifestyle we now enjoy came in a gift package at Christmas. Not so! Any privilege in which we take pleasure today, such as the right to vote, or to sit at the table with Capital, came about as a consequence of years of steadfast struggle by the progressive minds in the Labour Movement who were engaged in the struggle for civil liberties, human rights and economic justice, on the behalf of the masses of this country.

While the leadership of the Barbados Progressive League, from which the Barbados Workers’ Union was born, was able to initiate change beginning in the latter half of the 1930s, we must go back 100 years to highlight the sacrificial work of the pioneers like Samuel Jackman Prescod (now a National Hero) as well as the sterling efforts of Dr. Charles Duncan O’Neal, another National Hero, whose Democratic League (political body) and Workingmen’s Association (the trade union), struggled in the 1920s and early 1930s to improve the stifling living and working conditions of the masses in Barbados by seeking to remodel the structure of the Barbados social order. Neither Prescod nor O’Neal lived to witness the social, political and economic change for which they fought, but we, who now enjoy the fruit of their labour, should honour their sacrificial efforts.

Insofar as the Barbados Workers’ Union (B.W.U.) is directly concerned, we are of the considered opinion that the modern history of Barbados began with the work of the Barbados Labour Party, the outshoot of the Barbados Progressive League, whose ascendancy to political power ushered in constitutional change and its infant and economic arm, the B.W.U. which gave a voice to the workers at the bargaining table. And so we pay tribute to National Heroes, Grantley Herbert Adams (now Rt. Excellent Sir Grantley) - the B.W.U.’s first president general, and Hugh Worrell Springer (now Rt. Excellent Sir Hugh), its first general secretary.

The 1937 Upheaval

In Barbados the dramatic upheaval in 1937, in the form of the disturbances, was responsible for the coming into being of the trade union movement and, by the time the nations were at War in 1939, there was developing the machinery of collective bargaining in Barbados. In 1946, one year after the end of World War 11, as a result of resolute endeavour, tempered by a spirit of reasonableness, there was a record of better conditions for the worker and increased wages, thus paving the way for a higher standard of living not only in his immediate circle but throughout the community.

In accordance with the advice of Sir Walter Citrine, the General Secretary of the British Trade Union Congress (TUC), the 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. Some of the divisions represented single trades, others several trades, engaged in the same workplace organised for convenience in one group. Each division had its own officers and committee and managed its own internal affairs, subject to a right of appeal to the Executive Council and ultimately to the Annual Delegates’ Conference.

The first officers of the Barbados Workers’ Union were: Grantley H. Adams, Hilton A. Coulston, Treasurer; Hugh W. Springer, General Secretary; J.T.C. Ramsay, Trustee, Caleb Mose, Trustee; and J. Barry Springer, Trustee. The first Executive Council comprised: Chaucer Greenidge and MacDonald Brathwaite (Foundry Engineers), Clyde Gibson and Alphonso Gibson (Printers), Reynold Grant and Cleophas Bourne (Longshoremen), C. Medford (Baker), C. Butcher and Dalrymple (Coopers) and T. Symmonds (Seamen).

The formative years of the Union were not without labour pains. At the First Annual Delegates’ Conference, held at Union headquarters, corner Fairchild and Nelson streets on the evening of March 26, 1942, the General Secretary could only report the activity of two divisions the Foundry Engineers and Ships’ Carpenters. These divisions were not even among those which had signed the first draft rules. They, however, showed signs of seriousness of spirit and gave promise of developing great strengths and usefulness. The Engineers boasted a membership of 252 financial members and the Ships’ Carpenters – 78 members.

The Second Annual Delegates’ Conference saw the Bakers and the Seamen being again active together with the Engineers and Ships’ Carpenters and the eighteen members of other trades not sufficient in number to form divisions.

There was no great increase in growth at the Third Annual Delegates’ Conference, but at the Fourth, the Executive Council reported a jump in membership to 5,587 members with 22 active divisions. These included Carpenters, Masons, Bakers, Engineers, Electric Company Workers, C.R.B. Workers, Produce Porters, Steamer Warehouse Porters, Printers, Ships” Carpenters, Telephone and Radio Workers, Cotton Factory Oil-Mill Workers, Lightermen, Stevedore Labourers, Hotel and Restaurant Workers with members o the following unclassified groups- Agricultural Workers, Domestic Servants, General Labourers, Motor Mechanics, Metal Workers, Painters, Seamen , Gas Company Workers, Clerks and Transport workers. Agencies had been established with agents (whose remit was to collect dues) in St. Andrew, Sugar Hill in St. Joseph, Orange Hill and Carlton in St. James, Speightstown in St. Peter and Ellerton and Market Hill in St. George.

Numerical Strength

Numerical strength was on the increase and in March of 1946 membership stood at 8 470. By October, 1946, on the fifth anniversary of the Union, membership was at 10,697. This increase in membership resulted in large part because of the mobilising work by Frank Walcott (now Rt. Excellent Sir Frank) in the agricultural sector. Walcott, who became the first full-time employee of the Union, was recruited by the Executive Council as the Assistant to the General Secretary in January of 1945.

It was not long after the establishment of the Union that it began its mission of seeking improvements of wages and conditions of work for members of the divisions. The outstanding achievement of the early period was the agreement between the B.P.L. (Bakers’ Division) and their employers by which the hours of work were reduced from more than eighty hours per week to sixty hours per week. Bakers were classified, wages were increased with minimum rates fixed for each grade and a scale of overtime pay introduced. The inhuman practice of locking bakers in bakeries throughout the night was also abolished by this agreement. When on reflects especially on the latter situation of bakers being locked in bakeries throughout the night, speaks to many sorts of safety and health issues, including the possibility of fires, poor sanitation.

Another major accomplishment was the negotiation between the Union and the Foundries under the chairmanship of the Labour Commissioner, Guy Perrin. As a result of this agreement, there were wage increases with engineers placed for the first time in grades and minimum rates agreed to. The term of apprenticeship was regulated and a system of regular examinations brought into existence.

By agreement with the principal four employees of Ships Carpenters, the practice of carpenters other than ships carpenters employed on ships was stopped and arbitration proceedings set in motion concerning the question of wages.

In April 1942, Mr. Norman, the Labour Adviser to the Comptroller for development and Welfare, issued the award for Ships’ Carpenters fixing the rate if pay at $2.60 per day for “skilfully employed persons”. Again the Union the Union was forced to use its powers of representation when the employees attempted a policy of discrimination in selection of carpenters. The matter reached the arbitration stage and Mr. Norman was again called upon to give ruling as to the meaning of the term “fully skilled persons”.

The Test of the Union’s Capacity

The first fruits of the Foundries’ Conciliation Board were an increase of pay of 10% for the engineers and the granting of a week’s holiday with pay. Following this triumph was the test of the Union’s capacity for leadership when D.R. Holder was dismissed by the Works Manager of the Central Foundry in circumstances which the division eared as “wrongful dismissal”.

The Executive Council of the Union demanded reinstatement and the Foundry reminded the Union of the Conciliation Board. A meeting was held and the Union heard that the Foundry Directors had confirmed the dismissal, but authorised an investigation. Subsequently, the Foundry informed the Union’s Secretary that they were prepared to submit grounds for Holder’s dismissal but not prepared to submit the matter for variation of decision. The Engineers Division was instructed to strike and except for four men, went on strike. The Governor intervened and summoned a meeting at Government House where he rebuked the Foundry for not allowing the matter to proceed to the Conciliation Board; he also informed the meeting that he intended to prohibit strikes and to provide for compulsory arbitration. The Union agreed that the men should return to work.

An arbitration Tribunal was set up. On conclusion of the evidence proceedings a compromise was reached whereby Holder expressed regret to the Directors for any loss of temper he might have exhibited in the Work’s Manager’s presence and the Foundry agreed to re-employ him.

The Second Annual Report commented that the Engineers’ Division exhibited in times of crisis a solidarity which is re-assuring. The Division has capable officers and committee members of whom special mention must be made of the Secretary (Macdonald Brathwaite) who has shown untiring zeal, energy, great patience and perseverance in trying circumstances.

That the Engineers’ Division deserved this compliment was seen in 1944 when a dispute at the Barbados Foundry fully tested the solidarity and resourcefulness of this division, and the entire union. On September 24th, while protracted wage negotiations were proceeding between the Union and the two Foundries, comrade Macdonald Brathwaite was dismissed by the Barbados Foundry on the grounds that he took more time over his job than he should have done. He had served the Foundry for 25 years from apprentice to senior workman and had been secretary of the Division from its inception. The Union felt that his dismissal was a challenge to its influence and an attempt to strike a deathblow at the vigorous growth of the unity among the workers in city and county, and on factory and field. Conciliation failed in this as well as on h question of wags and a strike took lace on October 21st.

The strike lasted eight weeks and in this testing time the Union rapidly grew in stature and derived inspiration for the fight for the worker from the response of trade unionists and others in Barbados and elsewhere. Unionists in Trinidad, learning of the efforts to break the strike, publicised the facts of the case, started a collection and sent the Union substantial sums of money. Barbadians in Curacao rallied to the support of the Union making it unmistakeably clear that trade unionists were standing as one solid united front of workers, identifying themselves with the struggles of their comrades across the seas. Eventually the Governor approached both parties. They came together and a settlement was reached for a substantial gratuity. Without the Union neither of these results would have been possible.

Nine Hour Day

In recoding the list of achievements the drama of the strike is likely overshadow all other triumphs. Problems of workers of the other divisions also engaged the attention of the Executive Council of the Union. As far back as in 1942 negotiations on behalf of the Bakers resulted in the establishment of a nine-hour day and a 50-hour week; the institution of overtime pay at the rates of a time and a quarter for the fist two hours, a time and a half thereafter and double time on Sundays and holidays. The agreement also provided for an increase of war bonus from 10% to 20% and one week’s holiday with pay.

In 1943, conditions of work for the bakers again received attention when the Union asked for the provision of latrines and breakfast rooms at bakeries. In January of 1945, Biscuit workers received another 10% increase of war bonus but in September of the same year they staged a walkout and were successful. The Bakers also stopped work as a protest against the Manager of one of the bakeries. The stoppage was followed by negotiations. Eventually an increase of 11% in wages was agreed on. Employers also agreed in principle with the abolition of night baking and intimated their willingness to support a demand for legislation.

Tremendous Strides

Tremendous strides had been made in the improvement of the condition of waterfront workers. It was in 1944 that the impact of the war facilitated the reorganisation of the waterfront workers. A tribunal was sought and it investigated the claims of the worker, it awarded an increase of a war bonus from 20 cents to 50 cents a day and a provision of a trip allowance of 12 cents on week days and 18 cents on Sundays for stevedore labourers. Since the setting up of the tribunal in 1944 matters had considerably improved and agreements had been put in place which covered an eight-hour day, cost of living bonus, overtime rates, travelling allowances for stevedore labourers and an increased subsistence allowance during working days at Speightstown. Basic rates o pay per trip per man for Lightermen had been increased, thus shortening of hours of work for ordinary trios, improvement in working conditions in Speightstown, and consolidation of war bonus with basic salary. Finally, it was agreed that a Union delegate should be appointed as supervisor on each ship.

Revised rates, shorter hours, consolidation of war bonus applied to the other waterfront divisions: i.e. steamers’ warehouse porters, produce porters, licensed porters, and lumber porters.

Sugar Workers

Sugar Factory workers had their share of attention and an agreement provided foe the grading of workmen so that in one factory there should not be less than one A Grade man for every four B and C Grade men and not less than four A and B Grade men for every one C Grade man. Incremental scales were fixed for each grade.

Other divisions for which the Union concluded successful negotiations were the Telephone and Radio, Gas Company, Cotton Factory and Airport Porters. For the Telephone and Radio workers an agreement had been signed providing for a 48-hour week and increases in the rate of pay. Small increases in pay were gained for Gas Company workers in addition to the provision of a breakfast room, an hour for breakfast and eight-hour day.

New rates of pay had been agreed on for workers in the Oil Mill Section of the Barbados Cotton Factory. These were arrived at by consolidating the former basic rats with cost of living bonus (30% and 3%) and adding 30% to the total. The task work porters also received increases of pay on the principle of a retaining fee of 40 cents per day per man in addition to the fixed rates.

Airport Workers

Through approach to the British West India Airways (B.W.I.A.) on behalf of the porters employed at then Seawell Airport (now Grantley Adams International Airport), revised rates had been issued providing for an incremental scale leading from $7.00 per week by increments of $1.40 per week to $10.50 per week, plus 10% cost of living allowances, the fist increment dating from April 1st, 1946.

The major task of the Union was to complete the organisation of the agricultural workers and the essentiality of this was made clear during the cane-cutting dispute of 1945. The Union was however in a position to be of major assistance to Professor Sheppard in his investigation of matters appertaining to the cutting of canes. A memorandum was submitted to Professor Sheppard and as a result of a representative meeting, a committee was appointed to put their case before him. The President (G.H. Adams), the General Secretary (H.W. Springer), the Assistant to the General Secretary (Frank L. Walcott) and Comrade Cumberbatch, an employee of Todds Plantation, also held discussions with Professor Sheppard. They accompanied him on several visits o estates.

The Union regarded the recommendation and acceptance of the rate of 42 cents per ton for cutting canes as one of the outstanding achievements in the history of agricultural and industrial development in the island and took full share in aiding its fruition. This was followed by the fixing of rates for out-of-crop work on an equally progressive basis.

Achievement was not always easy and, apart from the intractability of the employers and employing groups, at times, the Union was forced to face the difficulty of overcoming impatience and impetuosity within its ranks. The Executive Council always made it clear that it could not uphold any member of the Union in conduct which was improper; that it was the duty of members of the Union to conduct themselves in such a manner that no fault could justly be found with them. If this was done the Union could, and would, protect them from injustice and victimisation.

And again when the carpenters and other divisions exhibited signs of “kicking the traces’, they were warned that the Union Rules were against the cessation of work or the threat of it without the sanction of the Executive Council; that any precipitate action weakened the influence of trade unionism in the island.

Overseas contacts were established and maintained. The Union had been in close contact with the British Trade Union Congress, the Fabian Colonial Bureau, the League of Coloured Peoples, and the Pan African Federation, the National Council for Civil Liberties and the National Council of Labour and Trade union organisations throughout the West Indies. It is significant to note that the U.K.-based organisations mentioned above, notably the Fabian Colonial Bureau, had carried out a strong lobby in that country on behalf of the emerging labour movement in the then British West Indies.

Labour Conference – 1945

In 1944 the Barbados Workers’ Union sent its Present (G. H. Adams) and the President of the Engineers Division, D.R. Holder as delegates to the Labour Conference in British Guiana (now Guyana). In September of 1945, the Union and the Progressive League were joint hosts to the Caribbean Labour Conference. At this conference twenty six delegates represented Jamaica, St. Kitts, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Grenada, Trinidad, British Guiana, Bermuda and Surinam. The delegates who included Vere Bird of Antigua, Albert Gomes of Trinidad, Richard Hart of Jamaica, and Hubert Chrichlow of British Guiana expressed high appreciation of the work and progress of the Union which was then its fourth year. It is also of particular note that a number of the delegates became political leaders of their island home – name Grantley Adams, Robert Bradshaw, and Vere Bird.

The Executive Council described the influence of the first five years of trade unionism in Barbados (1941-1946) as tremendous. The Council noted that wages ere the keystone in the economic structure of a community and when the lower income brackets had been increased; a leavening process began which spread through all classes and grades of workers.

The Union was credited with being responsible for negotiations resulting in higher wages in many branches of industry, improved working conditions and a measure of security undreamt of even in the immediate past.

Mutual Respect

As a result of the work and his determination to secure improvement and adjustments, employers in Barbados had also entered upon the task of organisation and the Sugar Producers Federation and Shipping Mercantile Association had been founded. The existence of these organisations, with the cooperation of the Labour Department, which was established in 1940, had materially assisted in the conduct of negotiations. But as was said in one of the Annual Reports, the Union’s success could not only be measured in terms of expanded numbers or even in terms of increased wages achieved. The Council felt that the Union’s greatest contribution was to create and to maintain between employees and employers an attitude of mutual respect and consideration.