The Struggle for Freedom


The third point of the general contribution of the Union, arising out of that second point, was its insistence upon the need to recognize the social consequences of technological change in the local territorial economy. Trade unions in “backward” economies are notoriously hostile to technological change, as the smaller Caribbean islands show. Barbadian union leaders like the remarkable Frank Walcott saw, more perceptively that the problem called for not a luddite opposition to change, but for a planned effort to control the pace and the scope of its application to historically vulnerable labour-oriented economies. Whether it was the question of the profound changes in the employment structure arising out of the new methods of bulk loading of sugar in the new deep water harbor, or, of the need to recast industrial negotiation techniques on a scientific basis of full statistical knowledge of operating costs. These costs are frequently withheld from the union side by obscurantist employers. There were also questions of proposals for a sugar workers’ rehabilitation and welfare fund, or of the submission of a memorandum to the 1962 sugar industry Commission of Enquiry so wide in its scope, as to force re-examination of practically the entire economic structure of the island. This was to include the question of the sociological consequences of the possible centralization of the unique family estate system of Barbadian sugar. There was also the question of the establishment of a National Productivity Centre for the study of all the factors, sociological, economic and technical, that impinge upon productive efficiency. All of them were treated in the same spirit of a passionate concern, on the part of the Union leadership, to lift the working class from the era of a Victorian laissez-faire plantation economy into the modern atmosphere of an intelligent popular participation in the creation of higher living standards. There was, even more, an equal concern for the general welfare as a whole, of which the Union saw itself, as much as the Church or even the political parties, as a self-appointed conscientious custodian. The upshot of this being that, today, the General Secretary of the Union, like the President of the newly-enlivened Junior Chamber of Commerce is accepted as a public figure with a right to comment on public affairs. This was a privilege reserved, until only yesterday, for figures like the Governor, the leader of the Legislative Council and the Bishop of Barbados. The Union, all in all, has done much to change the brutalized lifeways of the Barbadian labourer, so much so, that a piece of fiction such as Austin Clarke’s The Survivors of the Crossing, which purports to describe a Barbadian village of 1961 in search of a socialist utopia, is dangerously anachronistic in an assumption. This is, that at that late date, a cane cutters’ strike, called without benefit of the Union, could be put down by a Simon Legree type manager, along with guns and bloodthirsty Alsatian hounds.