Needed: Unity in Workers’ Movement
R. Rose - Eye of the Needle
April 26, 2024

Needed: Unity in Workers’ Movement

It seems that yet another year will pass without any indication on the part of the organized workers’ movement, the trade unions, of the importance of May Day and solidarity among workers and their organizations. The Day which came about because of the critical need for unity and solidarity among workers to promote and defend their interests, today passes without even a whimper, it has become just another public holiday.

It is a sad reflection of where we are at present.

International Workers Day did not become an international holiday, the only one of its kind, by accident. There were bitter and bloody struggles in the main capitalist countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for the rights of workers to be respected, especially the right to associate and form unions. These were often bitter and bloody but, in the end, not only did workers win the right to unionise, but they also demanded and won the right for a special day to be observed as Workers Day, a public holiday cutting across international borders, religious affiliation, and political outlook. Unity and Solidarity were the themes of this global day.

In countries as in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia where colonial rule obtained before independence, workers rights became a part of the struggle for broader political,  economic and social rights. Trade union leaders saw their struggle for unionisation as one with the struggle for self-rule, for the right to vote and other basic human rights.

Right across the Caribbean, including the non-English speaking Caribbean, workers organisations became part of the anti-colonial campaign. Trade union leaders whether McIntosh and Joshua in SVG, Jagan in Guyana, Butler in Trinidad, Bird in Antigua, Bradshaw in St Kitts and Clement Payne in Barbados did not shy away from linking the struggle for decent wages and proper working conditions with the right to vote and an end to colonial rule.

In the process, not only did the workers’ movement embrace May Day, but it was also used as the highpoint of their mobilization campaigns and the basis for unity among the working class. May Day was one of our most prominent holidays with sizeable marches and demonstrations. One must note that it was mainly “blue collar” workers who were involved since the colonial government would not recognize workers in the public sector.

In time though, with the British two-party system following the right to vote, May Day became taken over by political interests. Thus, political affiliation became prominent in the May Day marches leading to the erosion of the identity of May Day as a Day for workers, irrespective of political affiliation. In some countries, such as Guyana, Barbados, Trinidad and Grenada, the traditional Workers Day activities continued, though on a reduced level, but in others there was a significant decline and May Day became just another public holiday shorn of any connection to its original purposes.

This is so in our own country, the last two major May Day mobilizations being in 1981 and 2000. These are significant for they marked the occasions when there was immediate concern on the part of the workers, the so-called “Dread Bills” in 1981, and the “Greedy Bill” 19 years later. Attempts to hold May Day activities in recent years have been largely ignored by both the workers themselves and their leadership.

This is sad, for the workers’ movement has made many advances over the years. For one, the vexed issue of trade union recognition and bargaining has been settled though there are some, in the private sector, who still try to obstruct the process. “White collar” workers in service industries have become unionised and are entitled to bargaining rights and there have been improvements in wages and working conditions.

But all is far from well and both the workers and their unions know that. Workers in both the private and public sector still have many problems and are forced at times to threaten industrial action to have their grievances addressed. But there seems to be a problem with unity in the movement and solidarity within it. Some persons have attributed this to political preferences but there is absolutely no excuse to make political preferences come before the interests of workers.

Trade union leaders, like those in business and industry are entitled to their personal political choices but so are the workers too. Those choices must not weaken the workers movement and leaders must be mature enough to recognize the differences. There is a palpable level of a lack of solidarity in the trade union movement. This is a critical element in the armoury of the workers movement for it cannot succeed without support from fellow workers.

Precious efforts were made to encourage unity in the local trade union movement leading up to a trade union umbrella body. Yes, there are differences, but refusal to recognise them and patiently try to resolve them will weaken the movement. It is a pity that occasions such as May Day are not being utilised to try and build understanding and to strengthen the entire movement.

That is the best way to protect the interests of all the workers.