The Struggle for Freedom




The second front of the Labour Party struggle, in the heyday of its freedom march between 1941 and 1961, was the socio-economic. Union and party, working hand in hand, slowly put together the rudimentary welfare state of contemporary Barbados. The period of the first Parliament under Labour control, that of 1946-51, saw the beginnings of that policy. There was the revision of the tax structure so as to alleviate the heavy pressure of indirect taxation, via the old customs duties legislation, upon the middling and lower income groups. For the first time, with that end in view, a trained statistician was added to an Income Tax Department which, as the Howie Report of 1944 pointed out, was so inadequately staffed that five of its eight officers were not yet fully trained in their specialist duties, and even lacked a typist so that typing had to be done by clerks normally engaged in other duties. There was the organisation of new loan and credit facilities to push forward the silent revolution by which one-fifth of the arable land in the island according to the party election literature, passed gradually into the hands of the small holder class. There was the modernisation of hospital conditions, starting with the taking over of the old General Hospital by government and the construction, completed years later, of the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital, the naming of which incidentally, gave rise to yet another typically Barbadian controversy. There was the intro-duction, after the experience gained in a number of pioneer schemes, of the Provident Fund for Sugar Workers, a vital insurance measure in a seasonal employment industry and a new source of help under distress to a working population that has relied, traditionally. for help on its own inventive savings resources, as in the well-known local institution of the “Sou-Sous”, what Barbadians call the “meeting turn.” As early as 1951, the Labour regime could boast of an impressive record of legislative achievement. “In the field of social services,” its Manifesto of that year stated, “the Labour Government can claim an impressive record in the recent session. It increased Old Age Pensions. It enlarged and increased the scope of the Social Welfare Department, extending the Domestic Training Centre. It increased family allowances in the assessment of Income Tax. It led the way in the British Empire by passing legislation to provide holidays with pay for all workers. It extended the provisions of Workmen’s Compensation. It extended the scope of the Trade Union Act by allowing for peaceful picketing. It made the notification of accidents and occupational diseases compulsory. It enacted legislation to provide for the safety of quarry workers. It pushed forward with the programme to provide playing fields throughout the island. It took steps to safeguard by law the wages of manual workers.” All of this, of course, was ameliorative only. It did little, save for the inauguration of the United States Farm Labour Scheme and the training scheme for domestic servants going to Canada to solve the desperate unemployment picture of an economy that has traditionally been an emigration economy, urgently requiring outlets abroad. What it did do was to begin the planned elimination of general living conditions, including low wage standards, which, in the words of the Deane Commission, had made decent living impossible for the Barbadian masses. Not least of all, by the practice of appointing union members to the various boards and committees of the public administration structure, it begun the recognition of the working class as a partner in community life, and not simply as a group of employees existing merely to carry out the orders of a feudally-minded employer class.

Yet much of all this would have been impossible without the mass support engendered by the dramatic entry of the Union into the daily life of the Barbadian worker. From the beginning, the Union faced the harsh brutalities of an economic system in which, because of its high population density, there was the tendency for workers to be exploited on the altar of the maxim, “If you do not accept, someone else will.” The casual character of Barbadian employment, along with its high proportion of unskilled labour, made the Union, when it came on the scene, inevitably a general union embracing categories of workers difficult to define into sections, and so it remained for the period as a whole. The stevedore, the tally clerk, the cane-cutter, the bus driver, the telephone worker, the Broad Street shop assistant (who for so long resisted unionisation because of the element of paternalism shaping his social attitudes), all came under the general umbrella of the most remarkable of all West Indian trade unions. The engineering strike of 1944 secured the claim of the Union to be a bargaining unit recognized by the employer class. The Lewis episode of 1949 in which “T.T.” Lewis, the generally beloved white Barbadian socialist was victimised by his employers of twenty-eight years standing for his radical views. He received full retribution only after a mass demonstration of both Union and Party provoked an official enquiry, which finally served notice on the Bridgetown mercantile oligarchs that the days of easy victimisation were over once and for all. “The merchants got the money, but the Union got the men,” the refrain, sung to the tune of the American Battle Hymn of the Republic, testified to the “new day” of working class solidarity in support of new social principles. The rest was consolidation through a guaranteed daily wage for the sugar workers, the organisation, along with government, of the Labour Welfare Fund, workmen’s compensation schemes, holidays with pay, the 44-hour week, the acceptance of the check-off system, and much else. In more general terms, the Union became an overall defense mechanism of the Barbadian Negro proletariat.

For before its advent on the scene, Barbadian life was that of the three-dimensional class world portrayed, as already noted, in the Lamming novel of tropical childhood. The Negro villagers ruled by the estate overseers, the overseers ruled by the white owners, little social universes sealed off from each other as much by class prejudices as by racial animosities. Together, the reflected the astonishing combination in Barbadian life of tiny geographical distances and immense social distances. The Union, of course, did not destroy that way of life. But it helped smooth its rougher edges. It championed the cause of freehold occupation, for the phenomenon of large labour forces resident with their families on the estates, prevalent elsewhere, has not been the practice in Barbados. It helped give a new social status to the working class woman, especially by way of its fight against the scandalously low wages of the town shop girls (seven dollars a week as late as 1957). This situation facilitated the exercise of a sort of “droit de seigneur” on the part of the Swan Street merchant employer. There was the fight for the union shop in collective bargaining, a process still incomplete. Not least of all, the Union sought to teach its members to help themselves, particularly by encouraging the savings habit. The sugar “windfall” issue of 1963 fully illustrated how, in that effort, the Union was struggling against the traditional tendency of the worker to use the savings habit, as in his Friendly Societies, not so much as a long-term insurance device, as a means of getting an annual Christmas bonus. The “bonus” psychology, indeed, figures heavily in a consumer population whose living costs have been seriously inflated because of the enormous middleman profits exacted by the monopolistic, three-tiered distribution system of commission houses and importers, wholesalers and retailers.