George Charles: A Saint Lucian Trade Union Hero!
Sir George Frederick Lawrence Charles (7 June 1916 – 26 June 2004) has been cited by many as one who championed the cause of the working class in Saint Lucia and someone who pushed for the establishment of trade unions here. The former trade unionist and politician was a former Chief Minister and the founder of the Saint Lucia Labour Party. He is a recipient of Saint Lucia’s second-highest honour, the St. Lucia Cross (1987), and was knighted in 1988 by Queen Elizabeth II. George F. L. Charles Airport in Castries, Saint Lucia is named in his honour.
George Charles was educated at St. Mary’s College. Like many young West Indians of his time, he migrated to Aruba and worked there for a year with the Largo Oil and Transport Company. In Aruba he was exposed to trade union activities and, on his return to Saint Lucia in 1945, he championed the cause of the workers at the Vigie Airport (now named after him - George F. L. Charles Airport) Renovation Project, where he was employed as a timekeeper. His solidarity on that occasion propelled him to the General Secretaryship of the Saint Lucia Workers Cooperative Union.
George Charles played an increasingly active role in trade unionism and by 1948 was elected to the Castries Town Board as trade union representative. He stepped up the efforts to secure a more democratic mode of representation and, in 1950, he and his father, James Charles were among the key personalities involved in the organization of the Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP). The SLP immediately became the dominant force in Saint Lucia for over a decade. He and his party had a moderate socialist agenda, emphasizing workers’ rights and more autonomy, or independence, for Saint Lucia - then an overseas colony of the United Kingdom.
In the 1951 general elections, the first held under universal adult suffrage, the Saint Lucia Labour Party, under his leadership, won five of the eight seats against the middle class-oriented Peoples Progressive Party. Charles’s first resolution as an elected member was for legal recognition of the right to paid leave, which was rejected by the Colonial Authorities. The Labour Party was again victorious in the 1954 general elections.
The struggle that George Charles led resulted in a series of constitutional reforms, obtaining a responsible ministerial government system. Sir George was named as the first Chief Minister (1960 reform), as well as first Minister for Education and Social Affairs.
Charles was Chief Minister until April 1964 when the government fell. The SLP subsequently lost the elections for the first time. From then on, Charles played a lesser role in politics. After Charles’ tenure as Chief Minister, the SLP spent most of the next three decades in opposition. The SLP returned to power from 1979 to 1982, from 1997 to 2006, and again from 2011.
Charles, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1988, had received his country’s secondhighest honour, the St. Lucia Cross in 1987.
Sir George Frederick Lawrence Charles died on 26 June 2004 at age 88, after a short illness.
Sir George F.L. Charles.