Caribbean Movements Then and Now: A Labor View

September 25, 2007

Over the last decade, social movements throughout Latin America have intensified their struggles in spite of— in fact as a direct consequence of—the very neoliberal policies that were supposed to end all struggles. But it seems as if the more alive the social movements in Latin America become, the less we hear of similar possibilities or developments in the Caribbean. Has neoliberalism taken its toll on working people and the poor in the Caribbean and “struggle fatigue” stepped in? Is it unrealistic to even speak of mass social movements in this region today?

True, the history of Caribbean resistance has been characterized by many important moments when mass movements reached a peak and were able to take decisive, collective direct action. Yet Marxist theorist C.L.R. James warned, “In a revolution … the meteoric flares and flights above are a meaningless chaos and lend themselves to infinite caprice and romanticism unless the observer sees them always as projections of the sub-soil from which they came.1 Heeding James, then, in assessing the prospects for significant movements leading to fundamental change in the present, we must look back at the long ebb and flow of Caribbean revolt.

The end of slavery did not result in an end of the struggle for freedom. From the 1860s to the start of the twentieth century, important revolts and mass protests throughout the Caribbean were followed by a more organized wave of strikes in much of the region in the 1920s, before the major eruption of the 1930s. Influenced particularly by Garveyism and the Bolshevik Revolution, these strikes signaled the awakening of class-consciousness among Caribbean workers as they organized the first workers’ associations and unions.2

In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, the Trinidad Workingman’s Association (TWA), founded in 1897 by a pharmacist, was revitalized during World War I by rank-and-file dockworkers, who then led the country’s first general strike in 1919. The rolling strike encompassed all sectors: the docks, the emerging oil industry, the established agricultural areas of sugar and cocoa, the railway, some government employees and shops and other retail businesses. The state and capital responded with, in the words of labor historian Susan Craig, “smiles and blood”: strike leaders were jailed or deported back to the territory of their birth (many workers in Trinidad came from other West Indian territories), legislation was passed banning Garveyite and Communist literature, strikes were outlawed. But employers agreed to wage increases and a Commission of Enquiry was initiated by the colonial government—one recommendation of which was the introduction of limited adult franchise in 1926.

The 1930s would see the mass movement reach a new level of intensity, as workers demanded not only pay increases but also progressive social service reforms, proper housing, full adult franchise and self-government. This was the most significant period of region-wide popular revolt, as a wave of strikes embraced Belize, St. Kitts, Guyana (then British Guiana), The Bahamas, Trinidad, Jamaica, St. Vincent, Barbados and Curaçao. Although the resulting wage increases were minimal and did not even restore incomes to pre-1929 levels, there were significant social and political gains. As Craig commented, “For the first time, labor had thrust itself into the political arena.3

The trade unions that emerged from the ashes of these eruptions were, in general, radical, with leadership comprised of either rank-and-file militants or radical political activists (the so-called “disaffected”). Workers called for full adult franchise, a self-governing federation of the West Indies, the nationalization of the oil and sugar industries and a wide range of social reforms and programs—a political, not industrial relations agenda. The leader of the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU) of Trinidad and Tobago in 1938 sloganized “Organize, Centralize and Revolutionize,” and Caribbean labor leaders joined their international counterparts at the historic 1945 Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester, England.

Still, many unions did succumb to the official Colonial Office strategy of stressing industrial relations and constitutionalism over mass mobilization around wider social and political issues. As Susan Craig again perceptibly stated almost 20 years ago, “The history of Caribbean trade unions remains a history of conflict and tension between these competing interests—a contradiction that remains a key determinant in the strength of today’s mass movement.

Prior to and immediately after the formation of formal trade unions, the membership of organizations representing working people extended beyond the workplace. Women, the unemployed and small farmers joined their ranks, though each group was not necessarily organized autonomously. Women and youths held key leadership roles in important labor organizations, such as Elma Francois, who led the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association in Trinidad, which also had other women among its principal leadership.4 And there was Daisy Crick, who, as one of the Central Executive Officers of the OWTU in the 1940s, was highly respected as a fearless and capable leader by the oil workers, the vast majority of whom were men.

Workers lived in close proximity to where they worked, many in a company’s own “barrack-yards.” Workplace issues were intimately known to the families of workers and to the communities in which they lived; by mobilizing the workplace, one also mobilized the communities, and vice versa. With existing community organizations sharing workplace leadership, the labor organizations easily articulated the broader social issues of the day. This contrasts today’s reality, in which workers do not live where they work, trade unions only have tenuous links with the communities and each social sector is autonomously organized.

In the aftermath of world war II, british and u.s. interests collaborated to purge the labor movement of any radical (Communist) influences and leadership. This was not just a Cold War strategy, but also a way of ensuring that when political independence came—which the British knew was inevitable—it did so with local political leadership in the hands of the elite middle class. In Jamaica in 1952 the radical left was expelled from the leadership of Norman Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP) and of the Trades Union Congress. Following the 1953 election of the multiracial People’s Progressive Party led by socialist Cheddi Jagan in what was then British Guiana, the British sent in their troops, suspended the Constitution, detained the elected government and re-instituted direct colonial rule.

Approaching the 1956 elections in Trinidad and Tobago, the West Indian Independence Party, a coalition made up of leaders from the two major trade unions—the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU) and the Federated Workers’ Union—along with a core of Marxists, some of whom had played key roles in the 1930s revolt, gained significant momentum. But employers successfully threatened to terminate the check-off system of union dues collection unless the unions withdrew from the party. With their departure, the radical political option, rooted in the workers’ movement, was strangled, opening the door for the middle-class led, reformist People’s National Movement to win and take the country to independence.

Imperialism had succeeded in breaking the back of a radical regional labor movement, with one major result being the weakening of the movement towards meaningful regional integration and the eventual end to the short-lived (1958-1962) West Indian Federation. Since the political parties were in the hands of reformist middle-class leaders who divided the working classes along lines of race, religion, geography, party and trade union affiliation, the road was now clear for political independence to be granted.

In the lead up to independence and just afterwards, foreign capital was therefore able to freely penetrate and exploit the region. Multinational aluminum, oil, hotel, banking and insurance and manufacturing companies entered the region with great ease, making significant profits as a result of the attractive investment incentives offered by governments. The social settlement of independence—with all of its outward symbols of anthem, flag and sovereignty—had not altered the old imperialist economic and social relations, and while political power was now formally in local hands, the real rulers continued to be transnational capital and its local agents. The working classes understood this, and prepared to revolt once again.

In the early 1960s, the workers’ movement in Trinidad and Tobago engaged in many strikes and began to strengthen Afro-Indo working class unity such that the government initiated a commission of inquiry into “Subversive Activities in the Trade Union Movement,” banning strikes and preventing Indian sugar workers from joining African oil workers. By 1974 another major wave of strikes brought oilworkers, sugar workers and cane farmers together and a new movement—the United Labour Front—emerged. This transformed itself into a political party, contested the elections in 1976 and became the principal opposition party in Parliament. In Jamaica, the banning from that country of Guyanese scholar and activist Walter Rodney in 1968 was the spark that ignited a revolt of the masses of urban working people and unemployed.

In Trinidad and Tobago in 1970, the Black Power revolt saw the mass movement reach a peak not attained since the 1930s. Young people were reading Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Walter Rodney and other radical and revolutionary literature and the street corners (or “blocks”) became their political education classrooms. When the army mutinied under the leadership of young, radical officers, the government was almost toppled.

In the years following this revolt, movements in the Eastern Caribbean also challenged the old order. In Antigua in 1974 there was a massive strike and street protests, eventually resulting in a new political party and trade union that broke the stranglehold on power held by the traditional labor party—the Antigua Labour Party led by Vere Bird. In Dominica a similar process took place five years later. In both cases, young, Marxist activists played key roles. However, in neither country could the progressive forces hold state power for long, as they failed to recognize the need to transform what was essentially the old colonial state and create institutions of popular power. Within a few years, both countries were back under reactionary leadership.5

Walter Rodney returned to Guyana in 1974, and immediately set about fashioning a multi-ethnic movement, the Working People’s Alliance, to break up the old order of Afro-Indo Guyanese division. In doing so, he threatened the two-party lock on the country’s political system. Rodney was assassinated on June 13, 1980, in a bomb explosion in which all fingers pointed to the Forbes Burnham regime. Rodney’s assassination created the conditions for the resurgence of ethnic politics, and the possibility of Afro-Indo unity among working people receded in the years following his death.

The mass movement in Grenada, led by the radical lawyer Maurice Bishop, rose to a peak in 1973 around the issue of an Independence Constitution, only to be brutally repressed. Bishop and his colleagues in the New Jewel Movement (NJM) continued to mobilize and educate the people and tactically shifted to electoral politics in 1976, only to be shut out of office by corrupted results engineered by the Eric Gairy regime. Then on March 13, 1979, Bishop and the NJM seized power and established the People’s Revolutionary Government. Any rekindled hope among Caribbean people in the possibility of making a break with the old imperialist relations was blown asunder in 1983 when the Stalinist group within the NJM led by Bernard Coard hatched a coup against Bishop, claiming that his comrade was a “petit-bourgeois nationalist” and therefore “incapable of leading Grenada into socialism.” The assassination of Bishop and his colleagues on October 19, 1983, ended the Revolution and created the conditions for the U.S. invasion a week later. The forces of global capital and reaction led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were handed a gift on a platter.

These successive waves of setbacks had a profound impact throughout the Caribbean. Most of the small but influential left-wing organizations disappeared in the aftermath of Grenada. When the Soviet Union collapsed a few short years later, the option of breaking free of the western capitalist system was seen to be a non-starter. With many countries in the grip of International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank structural adjustment programs, the ideological position of neoliberalism became not just more strident, but dominant in academia as well as in the public discourse. The left was in full retreat.

Yet in Trinidad and Tobago the mass movement was not as affected by the crisis of the left. In 1989 the radical political party MOTION (the Movement for Social Transformation), whose leadership featured key national trade union as well as community members, was launched after a long process of political work. Earlier that year, a general strike against IMF policies totally shut down Trinidad and was followed by a series of mass protests in 1990 under the banner of the Summit of People’s Organizations (SOPO)—a coalition group involving trade unions, women, community-based organizations (CBOs) and religious groups. The growing mass movement, coupled with a fairly broad-based radical party and division among the traditional political parties, meant that a real opportunity was emerging to challenge political power.

This was not to be, however, as the Jamaat al Muslimeen, a Muslim group that was a member of SOPO, initiated armed action—which SOPO was neither privy to nor supportive of—that resulted in the occupation of Parliament and the hostage-taking of parliamentary members, including the Prime Minister. In its aftermath, with the right-wing backlash that ensued, the mass movement was forced to retreat. MOTION, on the other hand, was splintered by an internal conflict and eventually ceased activity.

Regionally, some former activists of the left abandoned political activity altogether. Others became active in the traditional parties that emerged out of the trade union movement.6 And yet others got immersed in existing or newly formed NGOs. Soon, a new breed of NGOs flourished that were opposed to the Washington Consensus and committed to advocacy around issues of governance, debt, development, poverty, gender and the environment and imbued with a regional perspective. Several regional and sub-regional networks were established: the Caribbean Policy Development Centre, the Caribbean Network for Integrated Rural Development, the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action and the Windward Islands Farmers Association, among others. New national networks included the Association of Development Agencies (Jamaica), the Association of National Development (Belize) and the Association for Rural Transformation (Grenada).

However, these organizations required resources that went beyond what either the communities or their respective governments could provide. Various international donor agencies became their lifelines, as many of the NGOs’ programs were in sync with the donor organizations’ priorities and even with neoliberal policies (“community empowerment” meshed with the “downsizing of the state”). The work of most of these organizations became very project-driven, with relatively little being done to raise consciousness or to build movement. Although key activists met regularly at conferences, shared ideas and experiences, raised funds collectively and engaged in advocacy from a wider base, they did not organize campaigns that enabled large sections of the population to participate in collective action.

One initiative that sought to tackle this weakness in the mass movement was the Assembly of Caribbean People (ACP). Called by the OWTU (the oil workers’ union in Trinidad), the first Assembly was held in Trinidad in 1994 with more than 23 territories and hundreds of trade unions, NGOs, CBOs and other organizations represented, predating the World Social Forum by several years. The ACP showed the possibility of a Caribbean social movement, but faltered due to resource constraints. It has since been reactivated with Assemblies in the Dominican Republic (2001) and Haiti (2003).

While there may be little sense of a pan-Caribbean mass movement nowadays, several national constituencies have recently mobilized against the failed policies and corruption of their neoliberal governments. In St. Vincent and Antigua, strikes and demonstrations by mass organizations (with the active support of the reformulated labor parties) resulted in their eventually being able to win political office in parliamentary elections—raising questions similar to those being faced by Latin American movements as they transition to state power.

What remains, however, is the fact that more than four decades of political independence and parliamentary democracy have not resulted in the fundamental transformations to which working people and the poor aspire. Apart from the electoral successes in St. Vincent, with the 2001 election of socialist Ralph Gonsalves (known affectionately as “Comrade Ralph”) and his Unity Labour Party, and Baldwin Spencer’s United Progressive Party win in Antigua, we have seen no similar manifestations in the English-speaking region—though in Belize in 2005 and before that in Guyana there were concerted mass actions.7 Certainly, in no case was the mass movement seeking to change the relations of power; at best, it wanted a change of office holders.

This limited vision reflects the dominant ideological position in social organizations: with few exceptions, the leadership has rejected any notion of revolutionary change. This is true for both the trade union movement, where the dominant position is for ameliorating class conflict, and the NGO sector, where the dominant position is to “facilitate” projects and/or engage in advocacy. True enough, governance is tackled, but only from the standpoint of transparency, accountability and popular participation. At best, there is a demand for constitutional reform.

There are, however, some signs of hope. Recently, the Caribbean Policy Development Centre (CPDC) initiated a regional campaign—Operation Make It Fair—around the so-called trade integration processes with a particular focus on the ongoing negotiations for an Economic Partnership Agreement between the European Union (EU) and the Caribbean. The CPDC has worked with national civil society organizations to set up National Working Committees on Trade (NWCTs), which together with regional networks of unions, farmers, women and several national organizations, have moved the struggle away from only advocacy to mass actions, including petitions and rallies that coincided with two of the trade negotiating sessions held in St. Lucia and Barbados.

The Windward Islands Farmers’ Association (WINFA) has for some time been involved in mobilizing banana farmers in the Eastern Caribbean around the issue of preferential EU market access. In the process, WINFA has developed a keen sense for building international alliances with producers as well as consumers in Europe who are prepared to pay a premium price for a fairly traded, organically grown product. An active member of the global farmers network, Vía Campesina, WINFA is also the driving force behind an effort to create a regional farmers network that would encompass farmers involved in diverse agricultural and food production.

The activism of the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA) has given many women in the region a real sense of belonging to a wider movement. Their journal, CAFRA News, is published in both English and Spanish, reflecting membership from throughout the region. CAFRA has been perhaps the most connected of the region’s networks to the global justice movement and particularly the World Social Forum. Issues of trade, poverty and gender feature prominently in its agenda and CAFRA members are active in the NWCTs. CAFRA has also continued to participate in processes such as the Assembly of Caribbean People, and is active in the work towards the first Caribbean Social Forum (CSF), thus demonstrating a keen sense of the importance of building a regional social movement.

And in a classic case of David defeating Goliath, in 2002 the OWTU brought together a coalition of trade unions— representing workers in Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Jamaica employed by subsidiaries of the Trinidad Cement company—in a mass regional campaign to block the sale of the firm to Cemex, the giant Mexican transnational. When Trinidad Cement was privatized in the late 1980s, its articles of association explicitly prevented any single shareholder from owning more than 25% of the company. The unions successfully argued that Cemex’s takeover attempt was a direct attack on Caribbean ownership of important hard-won assets under neoliberal globalization, and the unions’ call resonated among the company’s small shareholders—its shares are traded in the stock exchanges of the three countries in which it operates. The OWTU, by utilizing the vote of workers’ pension funds, won the battle at the shareholders’ meeting as well.

In Trinidad and Tobago, an interesting process is now underway to build a social movement through the umbrella Federation of Independent Trade Unions and NGOs, or FITUN, which is pointedly pronounced “fight on.” FITUN groups together radical trade unions (the OWTU and the Communication Workers’ Union) with a diverse set of NGOs (such as the Trinidad Youth Council, the National Land Tenants and Ratepayers’ Association and the local chapter of Disabled Peoples International) and CBOs (such as the East Port of Spain Council of Community Organizations). These groups consider their independent stance vital if they are to separate the social movement from the traditional electoral parties, especially in the context of the ethnic polarization that occurs with elections. FITUN is thus attempting to bridge the racial, ethnic, age- and class-based gaps that have developed in the mass movement over the years.

As neoliberal policies result in growing inequity and the absence of social justice in Trinidad and Tobago’s petroleum-based economy, signs of popular movements continue to stir. As of March 2006, community-based protests have taken place against the proposed construction of two aluminum smelters, the clearing of working-class areas of Port-of-Spain in a gentrification strategy and planned expenditures on mega-projects—a sporting complex, a cultural center, a convention-center-cum-hotel—each to cost in excess of $100 million.

Ultimately, today’s Caribbean social organizations need to return to their roots in the mass movements of the 1930s, transforming themselves into social movements by a renewed commitment to political education and direct action. Given neoliberalism’s determined assaults, another volcanic eruption by the people is certain. But whether or not that becomes a leap “up to freedom” will depend on the sustained work done by people’s organizations.8 If, as James perceptively insisted, “a revolution is made by the revolutionary spirit of the people,” then that spirit is still alive, and will burst forth some time not too far away.9

1. CLR James, The Black Jacobins, Preface to the First Edition (New York: Vintage, 1963).
2. O. Nigel Bolland, The Politics of Labor in the British Caribbean (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2001); Richard Hart, From Occupation to Independence (London: Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 1998); Sahadeo Basdeo, Labor Organisation and Labor Reform in Trinidad 1919-1939 (San Juan: Lexicon Trinidad Ltd, 2003).
3. Susan Craig, Smiles and Blood: The Ruling Class Response to the Workers’ Rebellion in Trinidad and Tobago (London: New Beacon Books, 1988).
4. Rhoda Reddock, Elma Francois: The NWCSA and the Workers’ Struggle for Change in the Caribbean in the 1930s (London: New Beacon Books, 1988).
5. In Dominica, Prime Minister Eugenia Charles attacked Bishop’s PRG and stood by Ronald Reagan’s side as the invasion of Grenada was announced; in Antigua there was a concerted use of state power to harass and intimidate progressive organizations.
6. This latter trend was particularly significant in the Eastern Caribbean and gave the old labor parties (St. Lucia Labour Party, Dominica Labour Party, St. Vincent Unity Labour Party and others) new energy, leadership and a more progressive platform.
7. In those two cases, the outcome of a change in government may not necessarily have led to more progressive regimes.
8. Phrase used by the Committee for Labour Solidarity (Preparatory), T&T. The CLS became the Movement for Social Transformation in September 1989.
9. C.L.R James, Walter Rodney and the Question of Power (London: Race Today Publications, 1983).

About the Author
David Abdulah, an economist by training, has served as chief education and research officer at the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union, Trinidad and Tobago, since 1978. He is currently president of FITUN and a member of the Regional Executive of the Assembly of Caribbean People.

Tags: Caribbean, labor, social movements, labor rights, politics, neoliberalism, protest

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