MAY DAY 2023- Painfully Reflects the Plight of Workers
Dr. Fraser- Point of View
May 5, 2023

MAY DAY 2023- Painfully Reflects the Plight of Workers

The first day of May, recognized internationally as Labour Day, should cause us to do some serious reflection on our society and the condition of our workers. The Day goes back to the struggles of workers in Chicago, USA, for an 8-hour day.

It was in Paris, France in 1889 at the International Congress of Socialist Parties that a decision was made to celebrate Labour Day annually on May 1. Since 1959 one of the biggest celebrations was in Cuba. This year Cuba has cancelled its celebrations because of what it described as “acute fuel shortages.” The celebrations there were also cancelled in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID pandemic. Except for Searchlight’s editorial which referred to the sad decline of May Day, and an Official Statement from the Minister of Labour, Hon Saboto Caesar, there was little else to signify the historic importance of the Day. The Minister, as one would expect, highlighted what he regarded as recent achievements within the employment sector and the significant contribution of workers to the development of the country. Searchlight’s editorial, after referring to the glorious days and historic demonstrations by Labour Leaders in the region over the years, stated, “But times were ‘a changing’, and as modifications occurred in the world economy, so too did changes occur in the trade union movement. More and more there seemed to be an unwillingness on the part of workers, and their leaders, to make any significant effort to commemorate May Day and inevitably it slipped down the ladder of important occasions.”

That is only part of the story. I did not follow all of the regional celebrations on that day, but I know Grenada, St Lucia, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago had what appeared to be successful celebrations. Jamaica’s Labour Day celebrations take place on May 23, that day being the anniversary of the 1938 labour rebellions that sparked the movement toward the development of trade unions. The May Day workers celebrations have been spearheaded by the Trade Union Movement that sought to commemorate the struggles and victories of workers. In SVG, perhaps more than any other member of CARICOM, the trade union movement is divided and really at war with itself. One section has found warmth in the bosom of the government while the other section has been at loggerheads especially over the Covid Vaccine issue. The trade union’s major responsibility is to protect the rights of workers and to struggle on their behalf. Looking at the St Vincent situation one has to wonder.

On my return from my studies overseas I became very much involved in the movement which at that time was more united. I delivered addresses at mid-day rallies, made presentations at seminars and workshops. I once hosted a member of the Trade Union Institute affiliated with the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. An invitation was sent to local trade unions to meet with the representative at the UWI Open Campus. It was one of my most embarrassing occasions because two representatives of the invited unions started a war among the unions because of a critical comment one made about a government policy. That was really the end of a discussion that was to include assistance to the trade union movement. What is happening today does not surprise me. It is as if some of the leaders have forgotten their role and the fact that they are servants of the union.

There is an historic significance to May Day in SVG that we have never focused on. The first May Day celebration of workers was in 1951. That was the occasion when the United Workers Peasants and Ratepayers Union of George Charles was launched. The Vincentian newspaper of May 5 described George Charles who “in a very dramatic style … took a bible and swore to be faithful to the Union promising never to let them down. Continuing, he said he was prepared to fight constitutionally until all the wrongs of the workers were righted.” Joshua was invited to return to St. Vincent where he joined the Union and became its Treasurer. The Union then went on to contest the elections of 15 October 1951, the first held under Adult Suffrage and captured all the seats. This is certainly worth celebrating.

Workers are the ones who built this country. The trade union movement struggled over the years and brought benefits to the workers. One element that has crept in is what appears to be a large distrust of some of the leaders unearthed by the movement. Politicians recognize this and have been trying to take advantage of it, in the process helping to further weaken the unions. I agree fully with the editorial of the Searchlight when it stated that “Differences in outlook and approaches will always present themselves but the trade union movement must have unity as its bottom line and not allow political differences to weaken its ranks. It is a pity that we allow the decline to fester but all is not lost.” The question is what will change the situation!

  • Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian