After taking part in one or the other type of activity held to celebrate Labour Day in Antigua & Barbuda, many people may still be on a high considering they would have capitalised on most of the events organised to mark the holiday meant to highlight issues affecting workers.
But given the political thread that runs throughout the format chosen by trade unions to observe the occasion, we daresay many have either been misguided or don’t give two hoots about the significance of the public holiday set aside remember the past and set realistic goals to advance the workers’ cause.
For, in reflecting on the nature and the types of entertainment rolled out every year on the first Monday in May, seeking to resolve workers’ problems are far from the minds of both revellers and organisers. In fact, a snapshot of the participants at the staple events – j’ourvert jam sessions, marches, and dancehall type concerts – would reveal that one would be hard pressed to recognise many workers at these free-for-all events.
Realistically speaking, though, not many of the hard-working breadwinners we know would be dancing and imbibing at 2 am on the same morning that they are expected to be on the job, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, at 8 am.
We will not dispute that some are there enjoying the party amid all the unemployed, teenagers, and young unsupervised children. However, we all know the sad truth: it’s politics; the game that’s played when the numbers translate to a show of strength for political parties, as a means of influencing fence-sitters to pledge their allegiance to the leading party.
In most societies, it is common for people to gravitate to winners, and leaders, so politicians continue to use the lure of jam bands, free shows, t-shirts and other paraphernalia to encourage their affiliates and supporters to attend, thereby giving the perception that one political party wields more might and power than the other.
From an historical standpoint, political parties in Antigua & Barbuda are intricately linked to trade unions. In fact, this is a fact that mirrors the politics of most of the islands in the Caribbean, so it would be almost an impossible feat to try to separate a political party from its parent trade union.
The accomplishments of the country’s oldest trade union, the Antigua Trades & Labour Union (AT&LU), founded in 1939, have been well documented. The stories have been oft-repeated of how the Father of the Nation, Sir Vere C Bird Sr and the other “thirty-niners” fought long and hard, and did not balk at taking industrial action in order to blaze the trail for workers to enjoy a semblance of justice and fair play.
Sir Vere formed the Antigua Labour Party in the 1940s, and this paved the way for his entry into politics, becoming the country’s first chief minister, premier, and prime minister. The ALP’s 28-year rule ended in 2004 when the opposition United Progressive Party, aligned with the other main trade union, Antigua Barbuda Workers Union (ABWU), took the reigns. The ABWU will observe its 50th anniversary in 2017.
This year, neither of the two unions chose to stand in solidarity with the Trade Union Congress (TUC), the umbrella body that was conceptualised to advocate for workers minus political interference. The AT&LU never participated in the TUC’s Labour Day rally, but for the past 10 years or so, the ABWU had been a fixture, until this year.
We will reiterate, while we lament the fact the real reason for Labour Day celebration is lost, but who is at fault for this departure from the ideal?
We are of the view that blame must be apportioned to both the workers and the trade unions. For the most part, workers through their silence, bear responsibility for allowing the significance of Labour Day to be lost, by taking part in the revelry while boycotting the TUC activity.
On the other hand, the union leaders, some of whom also have political aspirations, would have things no other way.
Meanwhile, the ordinary worker who would really like to celebrate Labour Day the way in which it was meant to be, is caught between a rock and a hard place.