It has always been awkwardly difficult to attribute causality to outstanding historical events, but none of the political pundits here have ever attempted to explain why trade unionism took roots in St Kitts circa 1916, but only attempted to establish itself in Antigua in 1939.
What difference did the presence of giants like Challenger, Sebastian (who was an Antiguan), France, et al make in St Kitts? Did the passage of the Masters’ and Servants Act after the Abolition of Slavery here, have a profound and retarding effect on social progress? Has Major Hugh Hole been given enough accolades for his tutorial role in planting and nurturing the seeds of Trade Unionism and political change in Antigua? How much do we owe to this White Englishman who owned Guana Island and used to entertain and lecture the founding fathers there?
The Grand United Order of Oddfellows and the Bargain House Lodge had been jostling for predominance since the days of the 1918 Riots and when the Brownes refused to help and be drawn into the conflict, they were subsequently unable to survive the war attrition that descended on them from the British. With thousands of members in the lodge waiting to be tapped, the predominance of the Oddfellows was demonstrated in President Reginald Stevens Jewellery Shop when the gathering lustily broke into the hymn, “Blest Be the Tie that Binds.” This was significant because it was the anthem and rallying song of the lodge.
Being on the cusp of the outbreak of the Second World War with John I Martin threatening to continue to gobble up the lands of the struggling white estate-owners who had been impelled for the sake of economic survival to form the Antigua Syndicate Estates, the black man in the face of economic conditions, the thrust of the two US military bases here and for his own survival as a group, had to go beyond the sphere of influence of the populous lodges and provide something that was different and newer. Something that was more than sick benefits.
The stabilization of wages became paramount. My argument has always been that even if a trade union had not started then, the pressure from the prevailing circumstances would have caused one to emerge. The presence of men of the calibre of Luther George, Pookie Davis and Norris Walter who had formed a close friendship with Major Hole was fortuitous and the tide in Antigua’s affairs was taken at the flood.
The masses were ready for a trade union. As the power and influence of the Oddfellows waned, so that of the union increased. This state of readiness continued through the forties and fifties when VC Bird emerged as the clear and absolute leader during the intricacies caused by political/constitutional and industrial change.
The constitutional and political change had created a hiatus in the union hierarchy where the powerful general secretary, Lionel Hurst had been promoted to the post of minister of labour and thus lost contact with the workers. This was a new situation of which the union had no experience. They had not had the time to savour their new status and to make plans for any contingencies that may have arisen.
The gut reaction was automatic and one of dismissal was instantly chosen as a normal and natural reaction. No quarter was asked and none was given. The union had fought such a battle before. The terrain was familiar but the tactics were new and the weapons unaccustomed.
George Walter had surreptitiously taken over the waterfront and the final assault was on the citadel of Public Works, where the new prospects of increased wages clashed with old loyalties to a fossilised way of preserving the status quo. The Old Guard at 46 North Street had awakened overnight to the realisation that the Antigua Trades & Labour Union had in reality been transformed into a practical and functioning blanket union. What had for many years been simply taken for granted as an organisation with dozens of sections had in the looming confrontation taken on an ominous exterior with real sections that had been functioning.
In addition to the Waterfront and the workers at the Public Works Department, the hotel workers had been unionised, the workers at the industrial estate had become card-carrying members. Brysons, Dews and Mendes, BWIA and LIAT, Pan Am – in fact all the airlines, and all the workers at Shell and Texaco had been bitten by the union bug. The ubiquitous nature of the Antigua Trades & Labour Union suddenly became apparent and the dichotomous nature of the organisation that had been spread over the political and industrial front gave national prominence to the struggle to control the apex of the industrial/political machine, the Antigua Trades & Labour Union.
The Antigua National Party otherwise known as the Anvil had been clobbered at the 1956 polls by the AT&LU combine. It was thought that no political party would have been able to defeat the Labour Juggernaught out of North Street, if a Trade Union base could not have been supplied and mixed into the challenge. Hence the creation of a union, the United Port Seamen & General Workers Union, that it was thought by the Anvillites would have created the perfect counter-balance to the dichotomous AT&LU.
That it failed in its objective was obvious, in that the Anvil and Rowan Henry lost the election, but it paved the way with a concept that union and party should be separated. The new Antigua Workers Union carried the fight via its mouth-piece The Trumpet that union and party should be separate.
The AT&LU, not willing to change refused to attempt to go with the flow and when the cry went out “Captain, the Ship is sinking,” the Old Guard, like Cassabianca, resolutely stood on the burning deck and went down with the ship. The mass appeal continued to be exerted by Trade Unionism, but the weight had shifted to the new union. How long the union would continue to have its charismatic pull would soon be decided by fate.