The Voice of Coloured Labour. George Padmore (editor) 1945
The wide and representative character of the Colonial delegation to the World Trade Union Conference in February was significant and encouraging. It was significant for the fact that for the first time in the history of international labour, coloured Colonial workers – the most oppressed and exploited section of the world proletariat – were given the opportunity of voicing their grievances and of expressing their hopes and aspirations through their trusted leaders. It was encouraging because in discussing the question of a new international trade union organisation, the white working class trade union movements of Europe and America, which have hitherto ignored the coloured workers, are apparently beginning to recognise that “Labour in the white skin cannot emancipate itself while Labour in the black skin is enslaved.” This awareness was manifested in drawing the long-neglected and forgotten millions of Colonial workers into the world fraternity of labour.
In this sense the World Trade Union Conference achieved a degree of solidarity which should go a long way towards laying the foundations of the new international federation whose formation has been endorsed.
Colonial delegates came from Nigeria, Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and Gambia in West Africa; from Jamaica in the West Indies; British Guiana in South America; from Palestine, Cyprus, and elsewhere. It is noteworthy that the Northern Rhodesian Mineworkers’ Union was represented by a white man, for the Colour Bar in that colony excludes African miners from entering the union.
While most of the Colonial unions represented by the coloured delegates are young, they have nevertheless been able to build up substantial memberships since 1940, when trade unionism was recognised in principle for the first time by the British Colonial administrations.
The Nigerian Trade Union Congress, which came into being only three years ago, now boasts a membership of 500,000 and 56 affiliated unions, covering transport, mining, dock-labour, seamen, public works, government employees, etc. On the other hand, the British Guiana Trade Union Council, with a membership of 10,000, is one of the oldest working-class organisations in the Colonial Empire. It recently celebrated its 25th anniversary and was represented at the Conference by its president, Mr. Hubert Critchlow, who founded and led the movement through its quarter of a century of existence. Mr. Critchlow is the representative of the Negro, Indian and other coloured workers of British Guiana on the Governor’s Executive Council.
Although most of the coloured delegates have served long terms of imprisonment for their working class and trade union activities, their speeches to the Conference did not reflect any of the personal bitterness and rancour that one might have expected from individuals who have been the victims of relentless persecution. For example, T. A. Bankole, President of the Nigerian Trade Union Congress, addressing the closing session of the Conference on the subject of the new international federation, stressed the need for an all-embracing organisation. “At this juncture in world affairs, when labour has adorned its history with glorious achievements in the struggle to overthrow Fascism and to establish a lasting peace, the workers of the world cannot but come together in order to be in a position to contribute collectively to the establishment and maintenance of that peace,” Mr. Bankole declared, and went on to say that he thought this was “why the formation of an international trade union organisation is a prime necessity.” Such an organisation, he emphasised, “must be founded on the principle of equal treatment for all affiliated bodies and their representatives, regardless of the countries from which they derive, and must be nurtured in an atmosphere of mutual regard, discipline and candour. It must keep an open door for all approved labour organisations functioning in all lands” – allied, neutral and ex-enemy.
There was nothing of narrow nationalism, racial or chauvinistic, in the speeches of these black men. Every one of them reflected a high level of class solidarity and socialist conviction.
The specific claims of the Colonial working classes were voiced by Wallace Johnson, President of the Sierra Leone Trade Union Congress, who a few weeks before his arrival in London had been released by the British Government after five and a half years’ imprisonment and exile to Sherbro Island, off the coast of West Africa.
Mr. Johnson called upon the Conference not merely to confine its condemnation to Fascism, which is not the only enemy of the working class. “Imperialism,” he asserted, “is for the Colonial workers as great a menace as Fascism is to the workers of the metropolitan countries of Europe.” He therefore appealed to the Conference to endorse and support the following immediate demands, unanimously approved and adopted by all the Colonial delegates as a Charter of Labour for the Colonies:
Concluding his speech, Wallace Johnson reminded the Conference that “Justice, like Peace, is indivisible, and the world to-day cannot remain half free and half slave.” In an eloquent speech, Ken Hill, representing the Jamaica Trade Union Council, the most progressive section of the organised workers’ movement of that Caribbean Colony, called for the extension of the principle of self-determination enunciated under Article 3 of the Atlantic Charter to the Colonial peoples. There is no doubt that he brought to the deliberations of the Conference a comprehensive vision and international outlook as refreshing as it is rare at such gatherings. Hill suggested that “it would be unthinkable if this Conference through its committees did not put forward declarations expressing progressive views on the Colonial question. To do less,” he asserted, “would be to leave the world to be betrayed into another war within the present generation.”
While recognising that the indomitable purpose of the free and democratic trade union movements of the world is to crush Fascism wherever it raises its ugly head, Ken Hill declared: “But we must go further. We must take care that in our preoccupation with this historic task, we do not fail to take steps and use the influence of the international working-class movement to discontinue the system of Imperialism and Capitalist domination, whatever shape or form they take.”
Mr. Hill based his appeal on the contention that one of the main causes of modern wars is the rivalry among the Great Powers for Colonies as markets, sources of raw materials, spheres of economic influence, and strategic bases for aerial, naval and military operations. Consequently, there can be no lasting peace until this conflict over Colonies is liquidated, and with it the whole system of Fascism, Nazism and Imperialism – all of which derive from capitalism.
He maintained further that the world working class should act so that those countries which are represented at such Conferences should “be judged not merely by the size of our contributions to arms and supplies of war, but by the moral values which out unity and association can engender for lasting peace and prosperity in the best interests of the working men and women of the world.”
Inspired by what may promise to be the rebirth of the united labour movement, these black men from the far-flung parts of the British Empire have returned to their respective countries and are continuing with undiminished zeal the struggle not only for national liberation from the fetters of Imperialism, but also for the economic and social emancipation of the downtrodden workers and peasants for whom they speak.
Imbued by the spirit of unity, the West African delegates have already issued a statement declaring that the time is fully ripe for the formation of a West African trade union federation, and that this should be an immediate objective aiming at co-ordinating the advance of the territory of West Africa as a whole. As a preliminary step they propose the formation of a West African trade union advisory council, on the approval of the respective West African trade union congresses, or their equivalents, which shall consist of the present heads of congresses or their accredited representatives, and which shall meet at an early date in one of the British West African Colonies for the purpose of formulating the basis of the proposed federation.
Without a doubt the labour movement in the Colonies is on the move and conscious of its aims. A similar move is taking place in the West Indies, where efforts are being made to bring about an All-West Indian Federation of the trade union organisations in the various islands, as part of the general trend towards West Indian political, economic and social federation.
But while these trade union organisations are officially tolerated, they are meeting with immense opposition from the European employers, especially the mining and agricultural monopolists. Workers who identify themselves with trade unionism are considered Bolsheviks and their leaders are hunted from pillar to post. Not only is it the employers who engage in intimidating the workers, the Colonial administrations themselves are often guilty. For example, in Nigeria, Michael A. O. Imoudu, President of the Railway Workers’ Union, because of his trade union activities, was arrested and deported from Lagos for a number of years by the Governor of Nigeria. Mr. Wallace Johnson, Secretary of the Sierra Leone Trades Union Congress, has suffered similar exile. In the West Indies, almost all of the prominent labour leaders have at some time or another been imprisoned, Alexander Bustamante and Ken Hill in Jamaica, Uriah Butler in Trinidad, Clem Payne in Barbados, and many others. Unlike labour leaders in Britain, champions of the working class in the Colonies are not regarded by the authorities as respectable citizens. They are always subject to molestation.
In the same way newspapers which are not necessarily trade union organs, but which support the struggles of the workers, are often suppressed. The Nigeria Worker, the organ of the territory’s Trades Union Congress, has suffered a long period of suppression. And during the general strike which broke out on June 21st, 1945, and is still in progress at this writing (July 20th, 1945), two of the most progressive African newspapers, The West African Pilot and Daily Comet, have been suppressed. Colonial officials hostile to trade unionism invoke defence regulations to muzzle the press. Under these regulations any editor in Nigeria can be fined £300 or sentenced to 3 years’ imprisonment or both without trial. All kinds of charges, from sedition to conspiracy, are levelled against militant Colonial labour leaders who make a courageous stand in demanding elementary rights for the working class. The most usual charge is one of incitement to disaffection, for under Colonial conditions of a plural society, it is very easy to make out grounds for such a charge. In these territories, where the exploiters of labour are white and the exploited black, a demand for higher wages or better conditions of service is immediately interpreted as racial incitement – the black workers against the white capitalists.
The barriers to the building up of trade unions are multiplied manifold in territories like South Africa, the Rhodesias, Kenya, and other East African Colonies, where official restrictions against assembly and freedom of movement and association of the indigenous peoples operate. Nevertheless considerable achievements can be registered, despite all the handicaps.
It is estimated that throughout the whole Colonial Empire there are about 350 registered trade unions, varying in their membership from a few hundred to several thousand. For example, in Nigeria alone, there are over 100 trade unions affiliated to the Nigeria Trades Union Congress.
The Colonies in which the trade union movement is most backward are precisely those where restrictions upon the right of public assembly and movement are most rigidly imposed. Pass laws, vagrancy regulations, penal sanctions, riotous assembly acts, all conspire to make it difficult, if not impossible, for workers to exercise their democratic right of association and collective bargaining. It is therefore not surprising that up to 1945 there were not more than two registered unions in Kenya, one in Uganda and two in Tanganyika.
In view of all the difficulties it is the duty of the more advanced trade unions, especially those in Britain, to render every fraternal support to these coloured workers, who are to-day passing through their Tolpuddle period. Moreover, the British working class have the great responsibility of making every effort to retrieve their country’s honour, for the ruling class of their nation have done everything by their ruthless exploitation and oppression of the defenceless coloured workers of the Colonial Empire to engender hostility between the subject peoples and those of the metropolis. This hostility can only be overcome if the British workers demonstrate in deeds and not merely in words their sympathy with the Colonial workers. It is in their enlightened self-interest to do so, for, as one of the speakers reminded the Conference, “Labour in the white skin cannot free itself while Labour in the black skin is enslaved.” Once this truism is accepted, then the desired bond between workers everywhere, regardless of colour or creed, will find expression in unity of action and purpose.
In this pamphlet we have attempted to bring together the speeches and special reports presented by the Colonial delegates to the World Trade Union Conference. We feel certain that this form of presentation will help the British working class better to appreciate some of the problems which confront the Colonial workers, and which they are making steadfast efforts to surmount. For we believe that the most effective way of arousing interest, sympathy and understanding for the coloured workers is by placing at the disposal of the white workers documented material which they themselves have not the time or opportunity to delve out.
This small contribution to public enlightenment has been made possible through the generosity of the Pan-African Federation, an organisation of Africans and peoples of African descent in Great Britain which supports the endeavours of the Colonial peoples to create strong and virile trade union and co-operative movements as the most effective means of advancing their economic and social well-being.
July 20th, 1945.