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May - August,  2006

A Brief History of the Grenada Labor Movement

By Martin P. Felix

May 1, 2006

[Part 1 of 2]

“Ever since the day of creation
Mankind has been struggling on
If you want to get rid of exploitation
and foreign occupation you have to struggle on”

Black Wizard “Struggle”

"Workers of the world awaken. Break your chains, demand your rights.
All the wealth you make is taken, by exploiting parasites.
Shall you kneel in deep submission from your cradle to your grave.
Is the height of your ambition to be a good and willing slave?"

Joe Hill "Workers of the World"

On May 1, 2006, Grenadians like their comrades around their world will congregate in the thousands to celebrate Labor Day.

This year’s celebrations mark the 120th anniversary of a holiday that has its roots in United States. On May 1, 1886, the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions passed a resolution declaring that the full and legal workday will now constitute eight hours. Prior to this legislation, it was not uncommon for workers to toil 16 or 17 hours a day without due compensation.

These developments did not happen overnight nor did it only reflect the conditions of labor in the USA. May Day stands as evidence of the maxim that victory for workers anywhere is a victory for workers everywhere.

The eight-hour cause had swollen to a quarter of a million workers by April of 1886, and by May Day 350,000 workers were involved in a general strike for the regular work day that many take for granted today. When May Day was recognized in the US, multitudes of Africans throughout the Americas were only recently officially out of bondage. Puerto Rico, Cuba and Brazil (1873, 1886, and 1888 respectively) being the last territories in the Americas to be emancipated from what was for all intents and purposes ‘free labor’. The abolitionist cause helped bolster the eight-hour cause, and vice versa.

May is also the occasion of a related anniversary, the 149 anniversary of the arrival of Indentured workers in Grenada. The “spice island of the west” had a significant share of the more than half a million Asians (primarily East Indians) who came to the Caribbean as indentured servants.

Coincidentally, the first batch of East Indian indentured servants arrived in Grenada on May 1, 1857. Between 1838 and 1917, 238,909 migrants from the British controlled sub-continent were dispersed throughout the Caribbean; some 3,200 arrived in Grenada between 1857 and 1885. The arrival of East Indian indentured migrants in the Americas is celebrated around May 3 and 4th in Guyana and Trinidad (the territories receiving the largest share of these immigrants) as (East) Indian Arrival Day.

It is often missed that East Indians were not the only indentured servants to have arrived in Grenada in significant numbers. Batches were brought in from Sierra Leone (embankment point for much of West Africa), Madeira, and Malta. The majority of indentured farmers brought to Grenada remained and became independent peasants. Sometimes referred to as indentured slavery, the system was often as harsh as chattel slavery.

Partly due to this influx, about
of the adult male population after emancipation was small holders, with the remainder working on estates in a feudal relationship.

The introduction of indentured laborers in the Caribbean in such great numbers at fixed labor rates and below the post-slavery wage norms was a strategy of the colonial government and the Caribbean plantocracy to depress wage levels and keep it at a certain level. This was effective in maintaining the profitability of the plantation system.

Slavery was abolished in 1833 but the planters tried to keep the ex-slaves in a system of unpaid apprenticeship with brutal repression. The indentured servants were brought in to take over the slaves’ labor on the plantation. The majority of ex-slaves became independent farmers.

The newly freed slaves understood naturally what Karl Marx was writing volumes about with his observations of surplus value with the industrial revolution that was unfolding before him. This antagonism of circumstances that Africans and the newly arrived Indians were placed in would set the stage for the bad relations between the East Indian and African communities, the legacy of which exists even today. One the other hand the free African (indentured) presence has contributed to notably strong African retention in Grenada.

East Indian worker were involved in some of the earliest labor protest in the Caribbean. The abolition of chattel slavery, the introduction of indentured laborers, and the various waves of labor struggles throughout the Caribbean, were different phases of the constant struggle of Caribbean People's continuing quest for full emancipation.

The fact that there were always these phases of labor upsurge throughout the region reflect the common distressing economic conditions that prevailed. All too often the militancy of the regional movement of labor rights and social emancipation were thwarted by violent repression (police brutality and military intervention), and aided by repressive legislation (such as the Riot Act).

A very important aspect of the struggle for workers right in Grenada and the wider Caribbean was the struggle for representation. In 1917 the Grenada Representative Association was formed. Its membership included both a radical wing, led by William Galway Donovan and a conservative wing, led by D.S. DeFretias. The radical wing advocated a completely elected legislature while the conservative wing advocated a limited elected representation. Very advanced for its time, a compromise decision allowed for both elected and non-elected representation.

Even when trade unions were made legal in Britain in 1871, it took several decades of struggle before the right to strike in the Caribbean became legal. Legislation forbidding strikes in the region were enacted in the mid-nineteenth century and bolstered by the Protection of Property Act of 1905. These measures, however repressive, did not prevent a heightening of labor demands leading up to WW1.

The first worker organizations were benevolent societies, providing members with sickness and death benefits. By not being unions, per se, these organizations were able to avoid the anti-trade union laws.

However, the situation changed rapidly during WWI because of several related reasons - the escalating cost of living; wartime depravations; reports of racial discrimination experienced by West Indian soldiers overseas who serving the empire. In Guyana in 1916, hundreds of workers signed a petition calling for wage increases and reduction of the working day from 11.5 to 10 hours. There were similar waves of strikes and protest action throughout the region around similar demands, often led by ex-soldiers.

One such leader was Grenada-born Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler. Returning to Grenada, Butler joined the Grenada Representative Government Movement and founded the Grenada Union of Returned Soldiers in 1919. An oil worker, Butler migrated to Trinidad to work in the oil sector but became incapacitated because of injury. A Baptist preacher during retirement, he became renowned when he led a hunger march to Port of Spain on the behalf of dismissed employees of the Apex Oilfields Ltd. Butler had a great appeal to Grenadian and other eastern Caribbean migrants who were proletarianized in the oil fields of Trinidad.

Later Butler would become a wanted man by the colonial authorities for planning a major strike of oilfield workers, which commenced at midnight on 18-19 June 1937 at Forest Reserve and Fyzabad. As he addressed a large meeting, an attempt was made by soldiers and paramilitary to arrest him. The crowd rescued Butler. Riot broke out and a hated police corporal was drenched with oil and burned alive. Guerilla-style workers action flashed to various areas of Trinidad. The riots ended with a combination of brutal repression and some concession to the striking workers.

One of the shortcomings of the Butler riots was the lack of a clear working-class objective to challenge the status quo. The Butler riots would continue to aspire generations of struggles in the region, including inspiring Eric Matthew Gairy who is said to have been a witness to the Butler riots. There were similar riots throughout the Caribbean during the thirties. Grenada was a notable exception, albeit not for very long.

End of part one.

Historians are baffled that Grenada remained relatively quiet while a wave of labor strikes and protests swept the Caribbean during the 1930s. Some attribute this to the relatively larger composition of independent peasant farmers that made up the fabric of the working population.

Hart speculates that another contributing factor in the delayed effect of this regional upsurge of rebellion in Grenada was may have well been that the Grenadian working masses had greater faith in the efficacy of political representations in Grenada then elsewhere. He attributes this to “the immense popularity and reputation of T Albert Marryshow, Member of the Legislative Council, whose orientation was entirely political.” (Hart: 1998, p124).

Others give equal weight to shrewd maneuvering on the part of the Grenada ruling classes. The Grenada legislature made trade unions legal in 1933, with limitations in regards to picketing and other liability measures. Efforts by progressive lawmakers like T.A Marryshow to have these aspects removed were not immediately successful.

George Brizan argues that: "The Grenadian estate owners, the employers of agricultural labor, who were spared these holocausts, took heed of the saying "when your neighbors' house is on fire, wet yours". It was solely for this reason that there were voluntary agreements and co-operation with the authorities whenever they recommended a wage increase."

One of the conclusions of the Moyne Commission that visited Grenada in 1939 was the absence of trade unions in a territory with such a large percentage of Agricultural workers. The commission urged for provisions to be made for representation of rural workers. Although the Grenada Union of Teachers existed since 1913, it was not registered until almost half-century later.

Grenada’s first registered union was the short-lived Grenada Trades Union in 1937. Soon to follow was the St John’s Labor Party (later changed to the Grenada Labor Party/General Workers Union) that emerged in 1929 but was not registered until 1941. Between 1940 and 1949 the three primary unions representing Grenadians workers were, the St John’s Labor Party/General Workers Union, the Grenada Trade Union, and the St George’s Workers Union/Grenada Workers Union.

The 1937 commission of Enquiry into the economic conditions of Grenadian workers across various classes of wage earners primarily in the agricultural industry “revealed that the agricultural laborer’s wages were grossly inadequate, as was his housing, clothing and health-care. Tuberculosis, yaws, hookworm, malaria, gastro-enteritis, and venereal disease were widespread among the working people and their families, and by 1940, the infant mortality rate exceeded 115 per 1000.” The report further highlighted that laborers were ostracized politically. (Brizan: 1984, p.256) It was a reflection of the class collaborationist nature of these early unions that only miniscule, incremental gains were wrestled from the Grenadian property class.

The situation changed radically when Eric Gairy and Gascoigne Blaize returned to Grenada around 1950-51. The two were oil refinery workers in Aruba and both got their training in labor organizing as members of the Aruba Labor Union.

Then a young union organizer, Eric Matthew Gairy registered the Grenada Manual and Mental Workers Union (GMMWU) in 1950 and almost immediately spearheaded Grenada's first general strike. The GMMWU had wrestled the initiative from the existing establishment unions and within three months was the main bargaining body of agricultural workers due largely to Gairy’s populist rhetoric and charisma.
As the strike continued, Gairy was banished to Carriacou by the Governor. Mass protest engulfed the agricultural based communities, forcing the Governor to return Gairy to Grenada, and turning Gairy into a working class idol.

Gairy quickly capitalized on the situation by creating the Grenada People's Party (which later evolved into the Grenada United Labor Party) in which he participated in the October 1951 elections winning a surprising 71% of the vote and getting six of the eight seats in parliament as well as several spots in the cabinet.

Gairy came in like a hurricane and overshadowed TA Marryshow, considered the most respected figure among the working-class at the time. Gairy’s winning of adult suffrage in 1950 (long-pursued goal of Marryshow) led directly to the replacement of Marryshow as the dominant political figure. Whereas Marryshow was middle class, Gairy was working-class and appealed to the working-class and the peasantry. Gairy would dominate the island's politics for almost three decades.

It is ironic that workers strike brought Gairy in and another workers strike was the catalyst for the beginning of his demise: it was the nurses strike of 1970 that ushered in Maurice Bishop as a new champion of the Grenada working-class. Mass protest was also one of the sparks that led to fusing of a radical working-class Grenada opposition. A protest in rural St Davids against colonialist’s claim to Lasagesse encouraged the fusion of two working-class tendencies from different regions of the country to form the New Jewel Movement (NJM) in 1972.

NJM’s replacement of Gairy in 1979 was met by great enthusiasm by the Grenadian working people. And never before in Grenada’s history was working people and trade unions were as represented in a government in the Caribbean in general and Grenada in particular.

The NJM rule saw another phase of the organization and status of labor in Grenada. There was a flowering of trade unionism and several laws were passed protecting workers from workplace abuse, such as the Maternity Leave Law of 1980, which protected women from the common practice of being fired by their employers due to pregnancy.

There was also a growth of trade union representation. During the revolution, efforts towards creating a “popular democracy” of grassroots decision-making were making steady progress. Trade union membership reached 80% under the new mandatory union recognition law, a novelty in the Caribbean at the time. Trade unions, the National Youth Organization, the National Women’s Organization, and other such “organs” of democracy, elected delegates from their membership to take part in the programs of the revolution [EPICA: 1985, p99].

Also, for the first time in the history of the English-speaking Caribbean, there was a conscious, institutionalized, state-funded effort to educate workers in terms of their intrinsic self-interest with the introduction of Worker Education Classes in workplaces throughout Grenada. There was also a tremendous growth in Grenada union association with progressive trade union affiliations, such as the International Labor Organization, and its counterparts in the Caribbean, Latin America, and around the world.

The demise of the revolution saw another phase of unionism in Grenada, as the traditional May Day celebrations assumes maturity and becomes institutionalized, taking advantage of the momentum provided by the revolution era. May Day in the post-revolution era reflects the polarity of the gap between the interest of workers and the subsequent administrations, assuming a healthy alternative democratic space.

A new challenge for labor in the Caribbean is impending Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME). New year 2006 was ushered in with Caribbean governments signing the historic step of formally signing a document for implementation of the CARICOM Single Market (CSM), a move towards greater regional unity. Though the CSM is fragile and of questionably clout at the moment, this makes CARICOM only the second regional grouping in the world, after the European Union, to form a single market.

CSM formally began on with six countries on board including Jamaica, the six Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) are yet to sign but will most likely do so by June 2006.

The process which began with the CSM and its removal of barriers to trade, goods, services and several categories of labor will conclude with the implementation of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) by the end of 2008.

The CSME will involve a single currency and a uniformed economic policy. The Caribbean Single Market and Economy CSME involves the free flow of labor, goods and capital among Caribbean Community CARICOM member states. The most debated issue is the implications for employment. The free movement of labor is limited to qualified and skilled persons. The full implication CSM/CSME for the Caribbean working people, workers rights and unionism is not being adequately addressed.

The CSME is a business-led, globalization initiative. Where does Caribbean and Grenada labor fit into these equations? Will the Caribbean labor movement be re-organized to take up these trans-territorial issues? Will we now see May Day celebrations and initiatives take on regional manifestations? Will this usher in trans-territorial labor unions and trans-territorial trade union activism? Will labor unions take up the plight of inra-Caribbean migrant workers?

The answers to these questions will determine how well the Caribbean labor movement responds to the demands on Caribbean labor in this era of capitalist-led globalization.

May Day Solidarity!

©May 1, 2006. Martin P. Felix

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