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How May Day came to be . . .

Albert Brandford

How May Day came to be . . .

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On the eve of the 1937 rebellion, Barbados had remained almost unchanged since the mid-nineteenth century. The island was dominated by a planter and mercantile elite that attempted, through mechanisms such as the Masters and Servants Act, to ensure low wages below one shilling, and to keep the labouring population bonded to the sugar economy. Politically, the elite dominated Parliament and was slow to implement changes to deal with unemployment and poor living conditions. – Barbados Museum & Historical Society, 2014.
THE ARTICLE, from which this abtract above is taken, indicated it was into that milieu the labour movement was born and the powerful Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU), now the island largest trade union, was recognised.
“The social environment of the island was characterised by entrenched racial and class prejudices which remained rigidly enforced. Added to this was the return of migrant Barbadians with expectations of greater freedom,” the report said.
“With a local birth rate of 2 000 per year, limited educational opportunity, poor working conditions and limited self-governance made conditions favourable for social and political unrest. All that was required was the spark to ignite this explosive matter.
“This element was supplied by Clement Payne. Born in Trinidad of Barbadian parents, Clement Payne returned to Barbados at the age of 33 on the March, 26, 1937.
Influenced by activists such as Uriah Butler and other key members of the National Unemployment Movement and the Negro Cultural and Social Association, his return to Barbados was aimed at holding a series of public meetings to enable the creation of a trade union for the working class.
“The spark that ignited the 1937 rebellion in Bridgetown was the deportation of Clement Payne from Barbados to Trinidad on the 26th July. Anticipating that Clement Payne would be deported from Barbados his supporters went to the Wharf around [eight o’clock] . . .  that night in an attempt to prevent this from happening. When the crowd discovered that Payne had already been deported they responded with violence, roaming through Bridgetown, smashing shop windows, cars and street lights. When the police attempted to intervene they were attacked by rioters armed with stones and bottles and were unable to make a single arrest.”
As outgoing general secretary of the BWU, Sir Roy Trotman, observed, “the early leaders of the trade union movement were fighting against the early employers, and against the governments of the day in the 1920s, for an eight-hour day, for educational opportunities, for the rights of women, equality for women, and for enlightened treatment of 2011”.
According to the museum: “Looking back over the past 75 years, the results of the 1937 labour rebellion have been viewed by scholars as the beginning of a paradigm shift that moved Barbados from colony to independent nation state.”
As workers would have been out yesterday on their special day, May Day, it would be instructive to look at some of the legislation for which the trade union movement agitated and pending items.
Building on the momentum as a consequence of what some euphemistically call the 1937 “disturbances”, which were a direct result of the appalling social and economic conditions on the island, and Royal Commission into their causes, the Trade Union Act was passed in 1939, and came into force in 1940, thereby providing legal sanction for the BWU to be created.
The BWU, the first legal trade union to be established in Barbados, was registered on October 4, 1941, as the industrial arm of the Barbados Progressive League, the forerunner of the Barbados Labour Party.
The BWU has noted that each decade of its existence during the past 70-plus years has been marked by challenges and growth, noted a recent newsletter.
During the 1940s, the incubation period of the BWU, it experienced rapid expansion, growing from its small urban membership base with the three pioneer divisions – the Ships’ Carpenters, the Barbados Foundry Mechanics and the Central Mechanics – into a national movement which, by 1950, included sugar workers, representing field and factories, from all parishes.
In industrial relations, the BWU gained much power and prestige from the 13-week Advocate strike of 1956, which involved more than 200 workers.
It marked the first time that permanently employed workers in such large numbers had gone on strike for such a long period.
Among the BWU’s other achievements in the 1950s were the signing of the famous Domestic Sugar Agreement, which included payment of production bonuses; and the initiation of a proposal for a provident fund for sugar workers along with the gradual introduction of severance pay. That fund came into existence in 1964.
At the legislative level, the union, the Trade Union Act was amended to provide for peaceful picketing and the Workmen’s Compensation Act was amended to provide for domestics.
The newsletter noted the union’s achievements have come not merely in its efforts towards the democratisation of the social institutions but in giving voice to the working class and in significantly improving their standard of living, not just by the social and economic gains which have been brought about by the process of collective bargaining, but by the enactment of essential pieces of social and labour legislation which it had tabled in Parliament or for which it had lobbied.
These include the Workmen’s Compensation Act 1943, the Protection Of Wages Act 1951, the Holidays with Pay Act 1952, the National Insurance and Social Security Act 1966 and the Severance Payment Act 1973.
In addition, there was the Employment Of Women Act 1976 which introduced maternity leave and the Shops Act.
While there is a minimum wage for shop assistance, the union continues to lobby for a national minimum wage. And while it continues to push occupational health and safety at the workplace, perhaps, the crowning achievement was the recent enactment of the Employment Rights Act 2013.