POLITICS AND ECONOMICS: REGIONAL ORGANISATIONS OF TRADE UNIONS IN THE CARIBBEAN

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An examination of the international trade union movement shows distinct changes in both policy and spheres of activity of metropolitan trade unions which closely follow changes in the cold war, capital investment patterns and big power hegemony.

To some extent the history of the Caribbean trade union regional organisations reflects these changes.

Three international trade union federations – the ‘International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) and the International Federation of Christian Trade Unions (IFCTU) – have been active to a greater or lesser degree (usually through their own regional organisations) in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The ICFTU. which has its headquarters in Brussels, draws its affiliated unions from the “democratic” nations. It has a regional organisation in each hemisphere which acts as an information and recruiting centre providing trade union education, money and organisational aids such as cars. office equipment and advisers. In the Western Hemisphere is regional base, the Inter-American Regional Labour Organisation (ORIT), claims one-half of all Latin American and Caribbean trade union members as affiliates.

The WFTU is a similar federation drawing the bulk of its members from communist countries although it also has affiliated unions in non-communist countries. In Latin America 3% of all trade union members are affiliated to it. Finally, the IFCTU and the ICFTU claim 1.5% of total trade union members in Latin America and the Caribbean as affiliates. Its regional organisation, the Latin American Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (CLASC), is developing as a strong neutralist, nationalist force in Latin America.

In the Caribbean, the ICFTU has emerged as the dominant international federation as the result of the intensive interest and activity of United States labour, business and government interest which since the early 1950’s have acted through the ICFTU regional organisation as well as through the AFL-CIO and certain individual unions, especially the United Steelworkers’ Union of America and the Petroleum Workers’ Union.

The recruitment of affiliates and the establishment of “spearheads of democracy” in colonial, ex-colonial and otherwise emerging territories intensified as business interests, after World War II, sought new areas for investment, for industrialisation and for increased imports of primarily products. Not only a “responsible” government but also a labour force, aware of its duties and allegiance as well as its rights, were important factors for the continued and increasing investment from abroad. This point of view was stressed in a report on the “Economic Development of Jamaica” by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in 1951, which stated that “progress towards higher levels of production must be arrested as little as possible by prolonged interruption through strikes …. the private foreign capital which is so indispensable to development will be attracted only if Jamaica can establish a reputation for orderly settlement of labour disputes”. This sentiment was put more abruptly at a later date by AFL-CIO President, George Meany, who pointed out that without free labour you cannot have free enterprise, and without free enterprise you cannot have free labour. Thirteen years later, New World Fortnightly commenting on a strike situation in Guyana claimed that a pattern had established itself. As soon as there was a strike, which caused serious inconvenience to large employers, the Minister intervened and requested the workers to get back to work in the interests of the economy. “After all” (the Minister argued at the time) “Mr. Burnham has just gone to America to enlist private investment and nothing must be done to damage the confidence of foreign investors on whom we rely.”

In 1951, the American-backed Inter-American Regional Labour Organisation (ORITI was founded to help implement these policies in Latin America. One year later, in 1952, another regional organisation, the Caribbean Area Division of ORIT (CAD ORIT), was formed to deal specifically with the Caribbean area. The aims of CADORIT stated at the organisation’s second congress, were to advise the Executive Board of ORIT on applications for affiliation, to advise on the measures of promoting interests of affiliates and generally to co-ordinate Caribbean trade union activities. Contributions made by a certain large union” in the United States to the ICFTU Regional Activities Fund helped to support activities in the Caribbean. However, complaints were made by some Caribbean affiliates that they were receiving either insufficient or no help at all from the Fund, and other unions complained about “communications concerning domestic affairs being sent overseas without any discussion or consultation”. But, on the question of Financial aid, it was pointed out by the ICFTU that rt had heavy commitments to finance in South-East Asia, since there “were several organisations in the territories which constituted a large proportion of the population of the world and which were linked with the WFTU”. Thus the ICFTU funds “had to be concentrated in those areas to keep the truly democratic union in being”.

CADORIT was not the first regional organisation of Caribbean labour. It did, in fact, replace an indigenous regional federation of trade unions. The first such organisation, the British Guiana and West Indies Labour Conference was founded in 1926 and existed until 1944 when it held its third and final conference. In 1945, a new federation, the Caribbean Labour Congress (CLC) held its first meeting in Barbados. Like its predecessor, it was West Indian in character and not heavily dependent on financial and other aid from outside the area, although contacts were made and some help given. While the activities of the CLC fluctuated, it was not “moribund” when CADORIT was created to take its place. The report of the CADO RI T Second Conference states, however:

“It has been decided, following the establishment of CADORIT, that no purpose would be served in continuing the activities of the moribund Caribbean Labour Congress, and Brother Grantley Adams, the President of the CLC, had undertaken to call a meeting of the CLC Council in Jamaica towards the end of November to declare the CLC dissolved.”

The Secretary of the CLC together with other members were not prepared to be replaced so easily and consequently proposed that an approach should be made to both the ICFTU and the WFTU to inform them that “West Indian trade union leaders felt that the best interests of the workers would be served by a Caribbean Federation of Trade Unions which would embrace all trade unions in the area, regardless of international affiliation and which would control its own affairs . . .. that if the International Bodies were really concerned with the welfare of the workers in the Caribbean they should be prepared to assist the local affiliates in equal proportion without attaching any obligations to the assistance … ” But these proposals were rejected and CADORIT was duly established. While its basic policy promoted American-style union structure, it also called for federation, and opposed European imperialism in those Caribbean territories where its interests lay. (These included British Guiana, Aruba and Surinam.)