P.J. Patterson Links the Impact of the Labour Movement to the Social, Economic, and Political History of Jamaica
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
In a presentation inaugurating the Hugh Lawson Shearer Trade Union Education Institute’s distinguished lecture series at the University of the West Indies (Mona, Jamaica), May 22, 2018, former Jamaica Prime Minister P. J. Patterson, ON, provided a comprehensive treatise on “The History and Development of the Modern Labour Movement: Lessons from the Past, Prospects for the Future.” Patterson provided us with a most eloquent elucidation of the historical context of the labour movement’s impact on the social, economic, and political development history of Jamaica and the English-speaking Caribbean. His presentation, which was given to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the labour uprising and the birth of the modern trade union movement in Jamaica in May 1938, removed the fog from one of the most misrepresented period of Jamaican history and shed light on the respective roles of the leading characters of the day.
Students of Jamaican and Caribbean history will find this presentation far more than a history of the labour movement, but also a history of the Jamaican people and nation-building at the very early stages of nationalistic fervor and advocacy which led ultimately to Jamaica’s independence in 1962. As Patterson stated:
“A full century after the emancipation proclamation in 1838, the social, economic and political conditions which provided the institutional setting for slavery, still remained as the bedrock of the Jamaican society. However, in 1938, the confluence of three streams of political activism was to alter the course of Jamaica’s development for the next eighty years. It had, indeed, been a long time coming since the end of Emancipation, but the workers of Jamaica knew a change was gonna come, and oh yes it did.”
“Prior to 1938 we began to witness the reshaping of the anti-colonial struggle manifesting itself in a social awakening and the flowering of new political groups [like the Social Reconstruction League, the National Reform Association, the Jamaica Progressive League, the Jamaica Union of Teachers and the Jamaica Agricultural Society, among others.] The intellectual fervour of black consciousness and black nationalism that followed on the worldwide movement led by Marcus Garvey threw up a brand of leaders and leadership that evoked a national spirit centred on racial self-respect and gave greater meaning and purpose to those fledgling organizations which sought to end our marginalization and exploitation.“
Former Prime Minister Patterson pointed to the rise of the labour movement and the birth of trade unions as challenging “the assumption about our rights and pride of place in society.” He cited the great Trinidadian philosopher and historian CLR James who famously observed that the workers resisted the notion that they were merely to be seen as spectators who were “to observe their masters from beyond the boundary” and never to be seen on the field of play.
Patterson noted that the material conditions which gave rise to the labour movement in Jamaica were common to other British colonies in the region. He noted also, that even before the labour uprising in Jamaica in 1938, there were social unrests and upheavals in British Honduras (now Belize), St. Kitts, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados. Patterson noted further that “The anti-colonial struggle was gaining momentum, and the conditions of the peasants and working class had become intolerable.” He cited Martiniquan born philosopher Frantz Fanon’s own observation that many of those in the fight against colonialism were focussing on issues relating to low wages and salaries, matters relating to forced labour and corporal punishment. Patterson linked “these inhumane conditions” as precipitating “the labour uprising, and merged with those who realized the impossibility of these “changing them so long as the plantation system was protected by imperial control.”
Patterson pointed out that, while Gordon K. Lewis (in his book ‘The Growth of the Modern West Indies’) attributed formation of class awareness to the history of the labour struggles,“the labour struggles of the 1930s were often spontaneous and unorganised, and would otherwise have dissipated had it not been for the organisation of workers into trade unions to give expression to their cause.” In that context, Patterson recalled the respective roles of Norman Manley, Alexander Bustamante, and the less heralded major players of the day, A.G.S. Coombs, Hugh Buchanan, St. William Grant, and others. He also noted the roles of Noel Nethersole, Ken Hill, F. A Glasspole, and Winston Grubb who “were among those who undertook the task of overseeing the BITU during Busta’s incarceration, resulting in further expansion and growth of the labour movement.”
Patterson’s presentation clearly delineates the respective roles of Norman Manley and Bustamante in the early years of the labour movement and in Jamaica’s political development. Manley’s role as nation builder and his advocacy for nationhood stood above all others. By comparison, while Manley contributed significantly to the early years of the labour movement, Bustamante’s role as labour leader was paramount.
Patterson also put in context the growth of the labour movement in the post-WWII era and highlighted the important roles of Michael Manley and Hugh Shearer in the development of the modern trade union movements, two labour leaders who, having served as prime ministers of Jamaica, also had significant impacts on the modern political history of the country.
The former Prime Minister’s entire presentation, which is available on the Caribbean Research & Policy Center website, is a must read for anyone who wishes to be fully informed on the birth of the Jamaican nation and links to the labour movement.
© 2018 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post