THE GOVERNMENT REACTS
Given the widespread dissatisfaction in St Vincent and the Grenadines in early 1981 about living conditions, the clamour for redress became louder and louder. The working people were feeling the squeeze and were not silent about it.
Farmers and workers were making it quite plain that their burdens were becoming intolerable and even monthly paid employees, traditionally never as militant or vocal as their daily-paid counterparts could remain silent no longer. The unions representing them, the Civil Service association (CSA) and the Teachers Union, demanded wage revision and meaningful bargaining rights.
This reflected the chaotic state of industrial relations described in Part 3 of this series. In both the public and private sectors, trade unions began to flex their muscles. In many cases the demands were economic, salary and wage increases being foremost, but in several instances there was a problem – that of a formidable stumbling block to civilised industrial relations. Trade union bargaining rights were severely compromised because there was no law to provide for compulsory recognition of trade unions where they had demonstrated that they represented the majority of workers.
All this fanned the flames of unrest and saindustrial strife among the traditional working class, as well as the public service and even among workers on state-owned agricultural estates. The Milton Cato-led administration found itself in a bind. It had made commendable attempts at state-led economic development in re-introducing the sugar industry, closed for almost two decades, by establishing the Diamond dairy milk plant, and in supporting private sector industrial thrust on the Campden park Industrial Estate.
However, the top-down and anti-union outlook of the government soon led to major production problems. Consumers were dissatisfied with the quality of products and service and workers were clearly unhappy. To compound matters, government decreed substantial increases in water rates while the local electricity company, then owned by the British-owned Colonial Development Corporation (CDC), tried to get increases in electricity rates through a High Court tribunal. To rub salt in the wound, the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Hon. Alec Hughes, a member of the traditional planter class, himself represented the CDC against the government in the court hearing.
This was nothing but a social cauldron with the pot already reaching boiling point. Yet rather than take the complaints of the workers seriously, the government of the day chose a high-handed approach. Perhaps blinded by its self-description as “the strongest government in the world” and with two very volatile characters heading the Attorney General’s Chambers and the Ministry of Labour, the government chose confrontation, insensitive to the volatile local situation.
The CSA and Teachers’ Union were ignored in their demands for wage negotiations; no attempt was made at resolving the impasse over compulsory recognition of trade unions. The cries of the working people went unheeded and industrial disputes were brushed aside. Clearly, things could not continue like that, something had to give, and so it did as we shall see next week.
Part 5 – The heavy hand comes out.