Labour Day in The Caribbean
Since 1890 May 1 has been when many countries officially honour the Labor movement but some countries choose different days.
In 1961, a bill in Jamaica’s parliament abolished the May 24th public holiday, Empire Day, and designated Labour Day as May 23rd which marks the anniversary of the working class movement which began in Jamaica in 1938.
By 1938 Jamaica was rife with labour unrest, the most significant being the riot at Frome sugar factory. One prominent figure who arose from the upheavals was St. William Grant, a labour leader, black nationalist and Garveyite who was arrested for his firm stands. In 1974 he was posthumously awarded the Order of Distinction and in 1977 Victoria Park Parade in the centre of Kingston was renamed in his memory.
From 1961 until 1971, Labour Day in Jamaica was mainly celebrated by the trade unions in collaboration with their affiliated political parties. These celebrations took the form of public rallies, meetings and marches. There were occasions when the marches of the opposing trade unions and political parties clashed, contrary to the original concept that Labour Day should be a demonstration of unity among the workers in Jamaica.
An additional dimension to the celebration was instituted by the most Honourable Hugh Shearer when he became Prime Minister in 1967: a Labour Day reception at Jamaica House, a tradition which still stands today. Hugh Shearer began his political career as a trade unionist. In 1953 he was appointed Island Supervisor of the Union. In 1977 he became the President of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union and in the ensuing years built the Union into the largest in the English speaking Caribbean.
Trinidad and Tobago’s observance is June 19. On this day, in 1937, a series of events occurred which laid the foundation for the trade unions. The man at the centre of it all was Tubal Uriah Butler who was born in Grenada but moved to Trinidad in 1921. He was a strong supporter of the pro-worker efforts made by the former captain of the British West India Regiment, Arthur Andrew Cipriani but objected to his “gentle” approach and became more militant.
In May 1937, because of the alleged contents of a speech he had made to oil workers at Fyzabad, Butler was arrested and charged with inciting to riot and with sedition. He was summoned but failed to appear and on June 19, 1937 when police tried to arrest him, his followers resisted and bloody riots - the Butler or Oilfield Riots - broke out. Widespread social unrest followed. Butler went into hiding but then gave himself up. He was freed of the charge of sedition but jailed for two years with hard labour on the charge of inciting to riot.
He formed the Butler party, winning six seats at the 1950 general elections. He retained his seat at the following general elections in 1956 but suffered a crushing electoral defeat in the general elections of 1961. However, when TT gained independence in 1962, Butler’s contribution took on special significance. He was regarded as a hero of the people and, in 1970, was decorated with the country’s highest award, then known as the Trinity Cross.