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After emancipation, labour opportunities and experiences changed for the better; before emancipation a slave was lucky if he lived nine years after being captured. Some died from diseases, but many of them died from simple overwork. Plantation owners found it cheaper to work slaves to death and buy new ones than to give them the food and rest they needed to survive and reproduce. Slave life on the plantation was an absolute nightmare. Some slaves worked up to twelve hours straight without a break, under a very hot tropical sun. The process of sugar making was not just hard work but it was also dangerous because of the long hours worked some slaves would fall asleep on the job. If that job was in the sugar mill they could end up severely injured. If a slave got his finger or arm caught in a mill they would use a hatchet “that was always ready to sever the whole limb, as the only means of saving the poor sufferer’s life, such was the daily routine of life for a slave.
The Emancipation Proclamation was read on August 1, 1834. There was plenty of singing, dancing, and drumming to be seen and heard on that magical day. Many people celebrated and the children added shouts “that seemed to rend the air.” The Act of Emancipation “mandated in the first instance large numbers of individuals were no longer slaves but neither were they free citizens.” Now there was a new hurdle, apprenticeship. It was a turn from slave labour into a more acceptable, though still mandatory form of labour, which would last four years.
Apprenticeship created several problems for the plantation owners. Slave owners were used to working their slave long hours but the days when owners could force slaves to work an eighteen-hour day were no more. Apprentices could now only work forty hours a week if they wished. Another problem was that many slaves used to have to work the night shift; Emancipation put an end to that rule. Ex-slaves in Jamaica could now work four to five days a week and with the days they had off, they could attend to their own gardens; of course, all too often the owners chose to ignore the new laws. The planters made no effort to change conditions on the plantations. Getting new equipment and creating better working conditions were out of the question. The plantation owners were expected to supply medicine for the sick; that was not done. They were also expected to supply better clothing and better food. Owners chose to ignore those things as well. After emancipation the owners were given compensation for their losses in human “property,” while ex-slaves received nothing.
Good news came in 1837 when the apprenticeship was abolished. The planters abused the system so much that it was terminated only after three years. More bad news came for the plantation owners. The compensation that they received would not save most of them. Sugar prices continued to decline, even as production went down because of the lack of workers. Instead of examining the situation and admitting what was really wrong the planters decided to blame their problems on the ex-slaves. The most often heard excuse was that blacks were lazy and did not want to work anymore. The truth was that the ex-slaves were finding new ways to make a living. They were tired of the working conditions on the old plantations. They were sick of being treated with cruelty; so many of them decided it was time to move on, but some actually did stay on the plantations and tried to make the best of it.
By 1860 half of the plantations in Jamaica had folded up. Many of the plantations were partly or wholly abandoned and the price of the property dropped. The plantation owners only had themselves to blame and with the opening of the formerly protected British sugar market to free trade, the few planters that survived were forced to sell their crops on the open market, often at a loss.
Former slaves found new ways to make a living; many of them became peasants and formed villages and communities of their own. They began to grow their own crops and sold them at the nearest markets. They grew ginger, bananas and sugar cane among many other crops of course the plantation owners hated the fact that villages were springing up. These new villages took away labour from them. The owners even found ways to get heavy taxes placed on some of the most liked imported foods of the black man and as for American and British goods the demand for linens, cottons, prints, beaver hats, shoes, stockings, bonnets and saddlery multiplied beyond belief but the heavy taxes placed on foreign goods did not make the ex-slaves want to go back to the plantations.
At first there were no schools or churches in the villages but that would eventually change; after emancipation independent Negroes made the most of their income from growing provision crops for sale in local markets until other opportunities began popping up as more and more villages were being built. The villagers were not just building houses for themselves; they were building for others too and these new structures were not little huts either. Some had several rooms so that everybody in the household could have their own room. As for dirt floors, that became a thing of the past for many households. Some had wooden floors made from the native trees on the island; with their houses built, black Jamaicans soon turned their attention to extending their villages by helping missionaries construct churches and schools; this would be the beginning of something special. Education was just around the corner for many.
Education played an enormous role in the upward movement of many free citizens; many young men and women attended the schools that sprang up around the island. Some went on to become teachers and educate the next generation; others became ministers and preached in the local churches. This was a step up from the labour their parents performed. Some were able to obtain jobs tending to business matters on the island but not everybody on the island was able to attend schools and obtain jobs such as teaching, and not everybody left the world of hard manual labour. Job opportunities off the island became enticing; many still had to work jobs where physical strength was needed.
Panama was one such place where workers were needed. A railway was needed there but for the Jamaicans that went, the great job opportunity turned into a nightmare. The Jamaicans were not the only ones who went to Panama to cut a canal across the Isthmus in 1879. Others such as the Chinese and Europeans also went. Disease was rampant and the deadly yellow fever was the worst of those illnesses. The Jamaicans and the West Indians stood up better to the fever, but a great many died, nevertheless, and within nine years, after a shocking waste of life and money, the canal scheme collapsed. Many of those who survived stayed in Panama. When the United States decided to build a canal in Panama in the early twentieth century many Jamaicans again lent a hand in the construction of the canal.
Ex-slaves and their children made many strides after emancipation. Life was not easy for most of them but with ambition and pride came, success for many. Going from plantation work to becoming teachers and ministers was not an easy or short journey. Freedom was something for which they had been longing, and when it came they made the most of it. All they needed was a chance and emancipation gave them that chance; many found that life could be something beautiful after all.
EARLY TRADE UNIONS
The early Trade Unions
Political experience emerged directly from the difficult growth of labour 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 counsels’ 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 burnt to the ground. After the usual official inquiry, the Colonial Office gradually agreed to the insistent demands of a number of middle and 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 sugar-field 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 of represented middleclass workers such as teachers, banana growers, coconut growers, cacao farmers, cane farmers, rice farmers, lime growers, and arrowroot growers 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. One reason why the two sets of organizations; that is; 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, so did the British Labour Party; in British politics. The experience of both the Boer War and World War I strengthened the anti-majestic control 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 labour 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 (BTUC). 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 labour 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 labour 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).
Beginning after World War II and lasting until the late 1960s, a sort of honeymoon existed between the political parties and the labour unions. Expanding domestic economies allowed substantial concessions of benefits to workers, whose real wages increased significantly as unionization flourished.
LABOUR IN THE 1930s
Labour upheavals of the 1930s
Populations and Class Structure
In Jamaica in the week ending 12 December 1942, 505,092 persons were classified as gainfully occupied. Of these 283,439 were wage earners of whom 88,981 were classified as unemployed. This did not include 50,528 between ages 15 and 24 who had never had a job. Classified as working on their own account were 153,274 persons. Included in this number were individual peasants or small farmers, but, because of the high level of unemployment, this category was abnormally large. This was because it included many enterprising persons seeking work but unable to get a job and had resorted to self-employment as a means of survival. Social structures in the other colonies were fairly similar.
In the colonies where the labour rebellions occurred, workers and unemployed workers who participated were to be found both in the urban centers and the other areas where the principal industries were located. In Antigua, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, St Kitts and Trinidad the largest employer of labour was the sugar industry. In Trinidad the oil industry, in Jamaica banana plantations and in Guyana bauxite production also employed many workers. In Belize the industry employing the largest number of workers was logging and lumber production.
In the 1930s, apart from the regional organizations established by the sugar manufacturers and the governing bodies of the sport of cricket, there was little or no inter-colony contact. There had been migration to Trinidad of workers from the smaller eastern Caribbean islands, particularly Grenada, for employment in the oil industry. There had also been migration from these islands and Barbados to Guyana; but apart from these migrations, the workers in each colony had remained isolated from their counterparts in the other colonies.
Franchise, Political Control and Labour Representation
In the 1930s, although legislatures existed in these colonies, few if any workers enjoyed the right to vote in elections. The franchise was available only to persons who possessed property owning or income qualifications which limited the size of the electorate to approximately ten percent of the adult populations. The colonial constitutions provided that effective political control remained in the hands of Governors appointed by the British Government.
Prior to 1932 the only colonies in the region in which it had been lawful to form a trade union had been Jamaica and Guyana, but the legislation did not permit peaceful picketing of employers’ premises and the Jamaican legislation did not protect trade unionists from actions for breach of contract in the event of strikes. Although illegal, the Trinidad Working men Association (TWA) had since its formation in 1897, in addition to its other functions, engaged in trade union activities. In 1932, on the advice of Secretary of State Lord Passfield (formerly Sidney Webb), legislation similar to the Jamaican statute was enacted in Trinidad & Tobago, Grenada and St Lucia but trade unions continued to be illegal in the remaining British colonies in the region.
The first attempt to establish extra-territorial contacts between workers’ organizations had been made in 1926 when the British Guiana Labour Union convened a labour conference in Georgetown. This had been attended by representatives of the TWA and a trade union in the neighbouring Dutch colony of Suriname. There had been no organizational follow-up and no regional trade union organization had been established. A similar conference was convened in Trinidad in 1938, with a similarly limited attendance and no follow-up arrangements.
On 13 May 1935 a strike of workers loading bananas at Oracabessa in St. Mary, Jamaica, developed into what the newspaper Plain Talk, a new voice of protest edited by former Garveyite Alfred Mends, described as a riot. The workers blocked the roads to prevent strike breakers from being brought in and cut power lines. Armed police were sent to the town from Kingston. On 21 May there was a strike of port workers in the town of Falmouth in Trelawny. This also developed into a riot when the use of strike breakers was threatened and one worker was killed by police gunshot. In Kingston, in that same month, banana loaders in the port went on strike and organized a march. On the second day of the strike the police opened fire on the crowd, wounding a woman.
In June 1935 the Jamaica Permanent Development Convention, a Garveyite organization, held a public meeting at which it announced plans for the formation of a labour union. Nothing came of this proposal but, in May 1936, the Jamaica Workers and Tradesmen’s Union was launched with A.G.S Coombs as President and Hugh Clifford Buchanan as Secretary. Coombs, an ex-soldier and policeman, described himself as “a peasant of low birth, very limited education and a very poor man.” Buchanan was a master mason and Jamaica’s first active Marxist.
The Labour Rebellion in Jamaica
In the first quarter of 1937 the growing unrest among peasants, many of whom, both farmed their own or rented plots of land and also worked part time on larger properties, and landless agricultural workers, found organizational expression in upper Clarendon in central Jamaica. Robert E Rumble, a small farmer who had returned from Cuba where he had acquired the trade of a coach builder and wheelwright, had formed an organization which he called the Poor Man’s Improvement and Land Settlement Association. By March 1938 he claimed a membership of 800 for his organization.
On 23 April 1938 this organization addressed a Petition to the Governor: “We are the Sons of Slaves who have been paying rent to the Landlords for fully many decades we want better wages, we have been exploited for years and we are looking to you to help us. We want a Minimum Wage Law. We want freedom in this the hundredth year of our Emancipation. We are still economic slaves, burdened in paying rent to Landlords who are sucking out our vitalities.” Agitation was conducted by Rumble and his organization for land for the peasants and proto-peasants and for better wages for agricultural workers. A movement to refuse to pay any more rent to landlords began to spread and, in some areas, land hungry people seized estate lands. This was fuelled by the revival of a widely held belief that Queen Victoria had promised that, 100 years after their emancipation, the slaves who had got nothing at the time of the abolition of slavery would inherit the land. Tenants and others who seized lands began to erect fences and offered to pay taxes on the lands the ownership of which they claimed to have acquired.
At the end of December 1937 workers on Serge Island Estate in St Thomas, at the eastern end of the island, refused to start reaping the crop at the rates of pay offered. Police were rushed to the area and, on 4 January, 1938, they reported that some 400 to 500 strikers had forced others to cease work. Sixty-three of the strikers were arrested and, over a period of three days from 13 January, were tried before the Resident Magistrate. Three “ring-leaders” were sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour, 7 were fined £2 and 11 were fined 21shilling each with the alternative in default of payment of 30 shilling and 21 days imprisonment respectively. 45 others were admonished and discharged. These were relatively lenient sentences.
On 29 March, warned that dissatisfaction among the lowest paid manual workers was assuming island-wide proportions, the Government announced the appointment of a Commission to enquire into rates of wages and conditions of employment of labourers in receipt of not more than thirty shillings per week, its first session to be held on 11 April. During the first quarter of 1938, large numbers of workers had been converging on Westmoreland at the western end of the island, attracted by the possibility of employment. On 2 May the Daily Gleaner published this report: “One thousand labourers, a large proportion of them engaged on the erection of a giant Central Sugar Factory at Frome Estate …went on strike Friday. They are still out and state that they will only return to work when their demand – one dollar (4 shilling) per day – is met by the West Indies Sugar Company.”
Next day the newspaper’s reporter on the spot reported: “The old factory on the estate, which up to Friday had been grinding canes, is entirely in the hands of the strikers … I hear rifle firing, followed by shrieks and cries … I can see men on the ground. Some are motionless; others are staggering to and fro or crawling away on their hands and knees. The strike has culminated in stark tragedy. A few minutes later I hear that three are dead, eleven wounded and that the police are making many arrests.”
Four people were killed that day, three by police gunshot and one by a police bayonet. On 4 May the Gleaner reported that “the known cases of persons suffering from wounds have not exceeded twenty-five, the arrests up to yesterday afternoon reached 96.” The wounded may have been more numerous as there was a widespread belief that anyone who sought medical treatment would be thereby identifying himself as a participant and inviting arrest. On 13 May the first batch of 27 of the 109 strikers arrested was rushed to trial before the Resident Magistrate at Savanna la Mar, charged with “riotous assembly”. The sentences ranged from 30 days to 1 year’s imprisonment. At the same time the Governor appointed a Commission to enquire into the disorders.
The events at Frome had an electrifying effect. There were demonstrations of unemployed workers in Kingston, the capital. Waterfront workers in Kingston put forward demands for wage increases and, at the end of the second week of May, came out on strike. On 23 May many other workers in the city struck work and work in the city came to a halt, all the major stores were forced to put up their shutters by marching workers.
On 24 May, the Governor ordered the arrest of William Alexander Bustamante, a popular figure who during recent months had been addressing public protest meetings and writing letters to British Members of Parliament revealing the distressing economic conditions prevailing in the island. The arrest of Bustamante and his principal assistant St William Grant, and the initial refusal to grant them bail, was a provocation which, despite the appointment of an officially sponsored Conciliation Board on 26 May, unleashed a wave of further strikes and riots.
A week later, realizing that the only way to ease the situation was to release Bustamante and Grant, the Government agreed to bail being granted; by that time however the spirit of revolt had spread throughout the island and strikes and demonstrations were occurring in every parish. This situation continued for many weeks, despite the use of the battalion of British troops stationed on the island to supplement the police. Workers were killed and injured and many arrests took place.
By the end of June calm had been restored. A number of factors had contributed to this. Perhaps the most important had been the launching by Bustamante of a trade union and assurances from him and the much respected barrister Norman Washington Manley that the workers would receive proper representation. The announcement on 14 June that a Royal Commission would be arriving shortly to investigate conditions had undoubtedly created expectations that improvements would be forthcoming. On 28 June Acting Governor Woolley had announced in the Legislative Council that two loans would be raised to finance land settlements and other infrastructural developments.
The West India Royal Commission
The decision of the British Government to appoint the West India Royal Commission was a response to the cumulative effect of the labour rebellions in the region. The idea, which may have originated in the Colonial Office, was proposed soon after it became known in London that the wave of social explosions had reached Jamaica. It was discussed at a Cabinet meeting on 25 May, after which the Secretary of State for the Colonies gave a somewhat cynical explanation of the purpose it would serve: “An early announcement that a Royal Commission was to visit the Islands would have a good psychological effect in these Colonies. It would tend to reassure their people that we here are keenly interested in their affairs, and anxious to do what we can to help, and it would therefore tend to calm excited feelings there.”
The proposal having been cleared with the Prime Minister and by him with the King, West Indian Governors were informed of it on 13 June and it was announced next day in the House of Commons. The Commissioners took written and oral evidence in London and in the colonies after their arrival there in November 1938 and made their report on 21 December 1939; by that time however Britain was at war with Germany and the conditions of poverty in the colonies which the report disclosed were so appalling that, to avoid the possibility of its being used in enemy propaganda, its publication was suppressed. At the time, only the recommendations of the Commissioners were published.
The labour rebellions of the 1930s increased the self-confidence of the workers in these colonies and convinced them of the influence they could exert by united action. The principal immediate benefit that the workers derived from the rebellions was that they forced upon the Royal Commission and through its recommendations the British Government, a realization of the need to bring trade union legislation in all the colonies into line with legislation in Britain.
Trade Unions were made lawful in those colonies where they had previously been unlawful. In all the colonies legislation was amended or introduced making peaceful picketing of employers’ premises lawful and giving trade unionists immunity from actions for breach of contract as a result of strikes. The organization of trade unions followed in all the colonies and the foundations were laid for the modern trade union movements, which continue to contribute to the struggle for an improved standard of living.
What occurred in the 1930s was a series of spontaneous uncoordinated uprisings. There had been no advance planning. Neither the leaders who emerged nor the participants had had any premeditated conscious objectives. Nor, during the course of the rebellions, did the workers or their leaders develop any revolutionary demands, such as the expropriation of property, the seizure of political power by the working class or the achievement of political independence; but this does not in any way detract from the historical significance of what had taken place.
POLITICAL UNION RIVALRY
Political Unionism and Union rivalry
Trade unions, otherwise known as labour unions, provide workplace representation of workers to their companies’ management. Trade unions enjoy state protection for their existence. This is because employers tried to violently push them out of existence in their early years. Today, unions are well known as both representatives of rank-and-file workers and as political contributors to politicians who support their interests. In this respect, trade unions play a dual role of being a worker advocate to management as well as taking a special interest in government politics, both at the local and national levels.
The National Movement and Decolonization, 1938-1962 The roots of the national movement for independence reach back into the struggles for land in the 19th century. More immediately, it was inspired by the political ideas and agitation of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, one of Jamaica’s national heroes and precipitated by the reaction of the sugar and dock workers to the economic crisis spawned by the Great Depression. It emerged as a political force in the context of the rebellion in 1938. Its most enduring political institutions are the two major political parties, and the labour unions affiliated to them; both the founder of the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) and the Bustamante Industrial Trades Union (BITU), Alexander Bustamante, and the founder of the People’s National Party (PNP) and the National Workers Union (NWU), Norman Manley; have been declared national heroes for their individual and combined efforts in securing political independence from England. The constitutional change that facilitated the emergence of these parties was the granting of adult suffrage and a measure of self-government in 1944.
The period 1944-1962 not only saw major political changes, but also major transformations of the struc
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