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

13. History of the Jamaica Labour Movement

By an Observer

The Trade Union Movement in Jamaica is, unfortunately, divided. Apart from the unions affiliated to the Trades Union Council, there are a number of so-called unions officially registered as “Bustamante Industrial Trade Union.” These latter are under the absolute domination of the greatest demagogue in the island, Alexander Bustamante, and have no democratic structure. They hold no annual conference, issue no financial statements, and all their officers are appointed and dismissed by Mr. Bustamante, who has made himself president for life of each of the unions he controls. Bustamante rewards himself for his labours by allotting himself an annual salary of 2,000 from the unions’ funds. This is three times as much as Sir Walter Citrine’s salary as Secretary of the British Trades Union Congress, which has a membership of 5,000,000 workers, just about a hundred times that of Bustamante’s own unions.

Record of Government Workers’ Unions

To counter Bustamante’s anti-democratic policy and high-handed methods, two previous officials of Bustamante’s union, Ken Hill and Arthur Henry, began to form unions of the Government workers early in 1942. They had left Bustamante in 1939 because he ignored individual complaints of members and because they were disgusted with the way in which he ran the union.

Hill and Henry were helped in their work by Richard Hart, F. A. Glasspole and Frank Hill, all of whom had been active workers for labour since 1937.

The task that these five young men took on was not an easy one. The Government workers had never been openly organised before, and when they started their unions, the Government took alarm and tried to break them up.

Workers Stand Solid

This only made the workers more resolute, and the Government passed a law making the unions illegal. Ken Hill, Frank Hill, Arthur Henry and Richard Hart were arrested and put in the detention camp, as the Government thought this would break the spirit of the workers and that they would give up the unions.

This was not what happened, however. What in fact did happen was just the opposite. The workers came together more solidly than ever. They strove to remain faithful to their leaders who were in prison. When Government saw this, it was forced to alter the law against the unions, and so the workers won back their freedom to organise. After four and a half months, the Government was also forced to release the workers’ leaders.

What caused the Government to change its tune? First, it was the fact that the Government workers showed that they were willing to fight for their rights; and second, it was the great help which the workers got from the People’s National Party. The two great leaders of this party, N. W. Manley and N. N. Nethersole, worked voluntarily and without payment night and day for the unions, proving beyond doubt their sincere attachment to the working class of Jamaica.

420,000 Increase in Wages Per Year

As soon as the leaders of the Government workers were released from detention in April, 1943, the big fight for the improvement of the workers’ conditions began. The Government set up a Re-grading Committee early in 1943. By December of the same year, 420,000 was paid in wage increases to the workers.

This was a great victory for the unions. To understand the real size of the victory, it must be borne in mind that the Committee which re-graded civil servants took four years to do the job, while the Re-grading Committee for Government workers got through its task in less than nine months.

How did this happen? It happened because the Government workers were solidly united in their own trade unions and were all joined together in their Federation of Government Employees’ Organisations, which was formed in October, 1943. The workers got their increases so quickly because they were brave enough to stage a three-day strike in November, 1943.

Bustamante, Strike Breaker

It was during this November strike that Bustamante showed how much he really cared for the working people of Jamaica. On the second day of the strike he tried to get strike-breakers to go in and take the men’s jobs. Bustamante was only defeated by the quick action which the unions took to upset his scheme.

The strike was staged to get the Government’s promise that the wage increases would be paid before Christmas, and it was successful. The week before Christmas, 420,000 was paid out to Government workers. Relief workers were left out, and their union, supported by the Federation, began at once to demand increases for these 11,000 workers. The Government set up a committee to investigate their conditions. At the end of March, 1944, it agreed to give relief workers a small increase of 8.125 percent.

Standard Rates for Relief Workers

This was not satisfactory, either to the workers or the union; but at least it was a small advance, and the workers accepted it as such while the union continued to fight for standard rates for all relief workers. The fight is still going on and is being led by Ken Hill, who has taken the matter to the Secretary of State for Colonies in London.

Government workers also benefited from a new committee which the Government set up to correct the mistakes which had been made by the Re-grading Committee, whose work had been improperly done. Last September, after correction of errors, the Legislative Council passed a further 24,805 for Government workers, which included a war bonus.

Other Successes

Meantime the Government Workers’ Union have been putting up a strong fight for other improvements. They have demanded an 8-hour working day for all workers in Government service. This demand has been dealt with by a committee set up by the Government, whose report Mr. F. A. Glasspole moved in the House should be immediately adopted. This proposal was refused by Alexander Bustamante unless the word “immediate” was deleted. So far no action has been taken on the report.

The Postal and Telegraph Workers’ Union gained a great victory in 1944 when it secured an 8-hour working day for district post office staffs.

In November, 1943, the Public Works Department Union secured big increases of pay for asphalt workers in one district (Halfway Tree), who had received .no increases since 1939. Lorry sidemen in another district (St. Andrews) received increases and back pay from April 1, 1944. Female labourers and plumbers’ assistants also got 14 per cent increases in their pay.

The Unions of Government employees which are affiliated to the Jamaica Trade Union Council (formed 1939) are:

Public Works Employees’ Union: Represents all P.W.D. workers on roads and at P.W.D. stations in the Island. President: Frank Hill.

Jamaica Government Railway Employees’ Union: Represents all railway workers. President: Richard Hart.

Relief Workers’ Union: Represents 11,000 relief workers in Kingston and the parishes and negotiates with Government on their behalf. President: H. O. A. Dayes.

Postal and Telegraph Workers’ Union: Represents all postmistresses, telegraph clerks, postmen, and other Post Office workers. President: N. N. Nethersole.

Government Printing Office Employees’ Union: Represents every worker at the Printing Office. President: N. N. Nethersole.

Government Auxiliary Workers’ Union: Represents revenue runners, customs guards, harbour master’s staff, messengers, couriers, etc., whose numbers are too small for separate unions. President: Ken Hill.

Legal Adviser to all the Unions: N. W. Manley, B.A., B.C.L., LL.B., K.C, Leader of the People’s National Party.

Distribution of Earnings

Following are figures of the distribution of earnings in Jamaica given in a recently issued Census Office Press Bulletin:

There are 283,439 wage earners in Jamaica. 194,458 are permanently employed. The rest, 88,981, are only casually employed.

54,947 of the permanently employed earn under 6s. per week. Most of these are women (domestic servants) who total 34,145.

46,583 of the permanently employed earn between 6s. and 10s. per week; 49, 952 earn between 10s. and 20s. per week; 24,028 earn between 20s. and 40s. per week; 9,110 earn between 40s. and 60s. per week; 4,063 earn between 3 and 4 per week; 1,980 earn from 4 to 5 per week; 2,158 earn from 5 to 7 10s. per week; 755 earn from 7 10s. to 10 per week; 579 earn from 10 to 15 per week; 174 earn from 15 to 20 per week; 129 earn 20 per week and over.