The Voice of Coloured Labour. George Padmore (editor) 1945

12. History of the Trade Union Movement in British Guiana

By Hubert Critchlow

The background of the trade union in British Guiana commences as far back as 1905. Our workings hours were long, the system of a quarter-day existed, and no overtime for night work. We asked the employers to change these conditions and the reply was that we must take them or go. I organised a strike on the water-front in December, 1905. Our claims were for a decrease of working hours, an increase, of pay, which was very low (truckers – called boys although adult men – two shillings a day, and could scarcely get a whole day’s work, taking cargo from the ship to the barn). Dockers loaded on to the ship. In those days we had a stevedore in charge of storing the ships. He stored by the ton and paid by the day, and up to eleven o’clock the same night the men could not get paid. In 1905 when we pitched, we demanded the abolition of the stevedore. The firm mostly paid when the ship was stored. The reason for the quarter-day was that the firm need not hire a man for a whole day, and just paid him for the quarter-day. Stevedores got 80 cents a day.

There was no trade union, and the employers refused. So I got the working men and boys together, and they agreed that when there were six boats in the harbour they must strike. They struck. A great thing, and at that time I did not know that all the estates in the country followed us and struck on account of low wages. At a particular estate, the Ruimveldt estate, they shot at the people as they came down to the town. Now, how did I come to have any influence with the workers and be able to get them together? Well, as a boy I was an athlete, and so I was known to the people, and when I left school I wanted to get a job where I would be able to get time to keep on with my athletics. I went to a foundry to learn engineering. But I left there and went to my uncle, who was manager of a cigar factory, which was worse. Seeing me on the wharf, Mr. Mackey, who was the manager, got me an all-round job. But the hours were long and I began to want to know why we, who worked hardest, could not knock off at four o’clock, like the Europeans. Because I wanted to get to my cricket and running. The Europeans knew me and liked me, because I was a popular figure, and the people began to listen to me.

But to get back to the strike. They were shooting the people coming down from the estate. At the news of the shooting, the women started a riot. The magistrate ordered the women’s hair to be cut off. They “catted” the men and sent them to prison. I, too, was arrested, but there was disagreement between the European people, because I played cricket and they thought I was too quiet and decent and would not interfere with this thing. Some said I should not be charged, and some said I should. However, I was not.

In December, 1906, a year to a day, they were saying that because of the “catting” and imprisonment we would not strike again, but there was another break-out. To quiet this break-out quickly and to frighten the people, the police brought wharf rats and ex-convicts to break the strike. I heard that if the people remained on strike for three hours they would get the increase. It showed that shooting and imprisonment could not settle the disturbance. The new strike happened because the old grievances were not settled. I was just about 20 then. I was arrested and charged before Magistrate Hasting, but the case was dismissed. We got nothing, conditions were not changed.

In 1914 the war broke out. In 1916 prices increased. I said to the fellows, “We can’t bear this thing any more. It is impossible to feed anybody on two shillings a day. We must strike again; we can only bring pressure to bear.” But I had more sense then. “Don’t fight,” I said. “Let me negotiate.” I went to a lawyer to get an application made out for certain conditions and sent this application to the Chamber of Commerce. The lawyer had said that I should get a sixpenny levy from all the people who signed the petition. When I approached them they declared it was foolish and they would only get shot up again. But I told them we must try once more.

A good Governor, Sir Wilfred Collet, arrived between 1916 and 1917. I managed to see him and told him about conditions. He asked if I had sent our demands to the Chamber of Commerce. I told him we had and that they had done nothing about them. The Governor told the Chamber of Commerce to meet us to negotiate. And in December, 1917, they decided to give us an increase commencing from January 1st, 1918. The quarter-day was abolished; we secured a minimum of not less than half a day’s pay for even only one hour’s work in the morning. The wage increase was 10 per cent, but prices went up and three months later, in March, 1918, we went on strike again. The people saw the usefulness of getting together.

In December 1918, we asked for the eight-hour day. The manager of my firm then, was Mr. Sherlock, who was president of the Chamber of Commerce. The firm was Booker Bros., McConnell and Co., the biggest shipping agents, part of Tate and Lyle. There was no union, but we workers met in the barn where I worked, and Mr. Sherlock came down to the barn door. He declared that it was only a few months before that we had got an increase and now we were asking for another, and an eight-hour day. He gave us a day either to withdraw our application or to knock off. We withdrew. I myself was blacklisted. I tried to get another job, but nobody would give me work. Strike-breakers from Barbados and Trinidad were brought in to unload the ships. They were told that there was an epidemic and that the stevedores could not work the ships. There had been an epidemic, but it was over.

I called these people together and told them what had happened, and asked them not to blackleg. Our people began to get vexed with me as though I were to blame for their not getting work, and were beginning to turn against me. I then planned a demonstration. A deputation of two or three of us went to see the Governor. He told us to start a trade union, charge an entrance fee and get the help of the unions in England. It was a very good idea. Masses of people were waiting outside to hear the results, and when I told them, hundreds of people paid an entrance fee on the spot, and the British Guiana Trade Union was started. It had taken 14 years. Men on the waterfront, the carpenters, shop assistants and others, seeing that they could gain by it, began to join the union.

On April 5th, 1919, I called a mass meeting for the eight-hour day, I was arrested because I gave out a handbill with a verse from the Marseillaise, and was charged with sedition. The prosecutor said it would have been all right if I had quoted the whole thing, but I had chosen two lines which were a call to arms. However, the Governor intervened and the charge was dropped. Then I asked for a further increase to two dollars.

Between then and January 1st, 1920, we gathered 13,000 members and 59,700 in the bank. About this time rumours began to spread. People said that I was an uneducated man and that this thing was too big for me. It was suggested that I should bring in some of the professional men, lawyers, doctors, clergy, and form a wider committee, with district organisers who would get $35 a month, travelling expenses, etc. They came in and started to educate. They said that no black man could carry on anything in British Guiana for more than six months. But between 1919 and 1930 I roped in nearly the whole country, every estate, and I had to travel night and day to keep touch.

In June, 1919, I became a full-time organiser at $20 a month. The union wanted me to get into the court, but to become a member of our Combined Court (1920) you had to have property to the amount of $5,000 or an income qualification of $1,440 a year ($120 a month). In order to get me into this category they increased my salary to the required amount, to enable me to stand.

In 1920 we wanted to raise $3,000 to start a co-operative company, but before we could get the shares the people insisted we should start the business. We began by getting credit with a Portuguese, and things looked to be going well. A peasant farmer from one of the districts came to me and offered 500 bags of rice at $8 a bag, saying that in three weeks’ time we would get $13 for it. The directors agreed. We bought the rice and kept it. But shortly after, the Governor fixed the retail price of rice at $7 a bag and we lost one dollar on every bag. But it left me with the idea that in the interest of the workers we must get controls.

After 1921 the slump came, and they started to reduce wages and employ strike-breakers. After a certain amount of correspondence and enquiry, our union was registered in 1922, the first in the Colonial world! But wages continued to fall, and it broke the backs of some of the workers.

They were reduced again in 1924. Work was scarce. The union had $5 and 42 financial members. The result was that a little later the people formed the Negro Progress Convention, the Marcus Garvey Association. That same year we asked the Government to find work for the people, demanding work or maintenance. When we wrote to the Governor, Sir Graham Thompson, asking him to open up unemployed work, he said we must go to the estates; but the estates couldn’t find sufficient work for the labour they already had. I threatened a general strike. The merchants threatened a reduction in our wages. They had reduced in 1920, 1921, 1922, and now in 1924 they threatened a reduction to sixty cents a day!

I planned a demonstration, as a result of which the whole Colony went on strike. Things were so bad that the Governor called the Chamber of Commerce to meet him and see what could be done. There were riots and shootings. The Governor arranged for me to meet the Chamber of Commerce, and even while the conference was going on some of the country people who were coming into the town were being shot. The conference was adjourned and an advisory committee was appointed to enquire into the whole question.

The workers on the waterfront were getting only eighty cents a day, and they could only get two days’ work a week. At the same time the ordinary expenses of a man without family or wife was $15. They asked how they were supposed to live.

I came to England for the first British Commonwealth Conference in 1924, but it was postponed until 1925. However, they heard what I had to say and my demands were printed in the British Commonwealth Book. I also went to the 1930 Conference, and repeated my demands for reduction of hours, for insurance, old-age pensions, national health insurance, etc. I went on to Germany at the end of December, 1931, for the conference of the International Committee of Trade Union Workers, and visited Russia in 1932.

Returning to British Guiana, I started to carry on unemployment demonstrations. We put up a notice saying, “No work, no rent.” I was now regarded as a serious agitator and one of the most wicked men in the country. They barred me from my own birthplace of Wismore.

About this time the different unions began to form the Workers’ League, while the East Indians established the Citizens’ Union. There were 28 other registered unions, and we got together to form our Trades Union Council. We pressed the Governor to introduce a rent restriction Act. Work was found for us, and they gave us rice, salt, fish, bread. The schoolchildren got free meal tickets. That was in 1933.

Because of suggestions I was constantly offering on the question of providing, work for the unemployed, they put me on an Unemployment Committee, and since 1934 I have been a nominated member of the Legislative and Executive Council. I was the first labour member, one out of the five the Governor was entitled to nominate. Since the nominated members have been increased to 7, labour has been given another two representatives, making three altogether.