Labour Day in The Caribbean

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LABOUR DAY -

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.

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