The Point Is...
THIS year marks the 75th anniversary of the birth of the modern trade union movement and it has gone largely unnoticed. The year also marks the 75th anniversary of the People's National Party (PNP) of which much celebration has so far taken place.
A central figure in both the formation of the PNP and the development and sustainability of the trade union movement was Norman Manley about whose life and work much has been written. His brilliance as a lawyer remains unchallenged and unmatched, and he was a man of consummate political courage.
He excelled as an athlete and his wartime experience is an example of his enormous physical stamina and true grit. He was in every way a statesman, exemplary in his personal and public life, always exhibiting a nobleness of soul and a generosity of mind that made him the true leader that he was.
He was an exceptional Caribbean man, conscious of the sovereignty of the people as a basis for governmental authority, and selfless in the cause of duty.
He challenged himself to excellence. Never, of course, as a fulfilment of self-esteem, but rather for the development of the country and the interest of the people. But in all this we have somehow underplayed the true commitment of Norman Manley to labour.
He believed in the centrality of labour and the role of the labour movement in advancing not only the interest of the working class, but also the development of the economy. Professor Stuart Hall, in delivering the first Norman Manley Memorial Lecture of the Royal Commonwealth Society, London in 1984 said: "His (Manley) orientation was never labourist in a narrow sense. It was overridingly nationalist... He saw the critical importance of trade union organisation... as a bridge between the middle-class movement for self-government and the working-class movement which implied social and economic reconstruction on the other."
It was for this reason that he was to play a vanguard role in defining and developing the trade union movement in Jamaica from the 1930s through to the 1960s.
His belief in labour was spawned by the depth of his understanding of the de-colonisation process, and is very much evidenced in the opinion he once expressed that 'any man attempting to subvert the course of the labour movement is no friend of
Manley addressed over 2,000 dock labourers at the Number 1 Pier on the formation of a trade union at the end of the Kingston Waterfront workers' strike in May 1938. According to The Gleaner of May 29, 1938, Manley outlined the principles of a union, how to proceed when it was formed and the type and quality of men to lead it.
He had earlier secured the release of Alexander Bustamante from detention and had recommended to the Government the setting up of a Conciliation Board, as his objective was to 'compose' the agitation of the workers and to see that it had constructive results.
Manley and Bustamante worked all over Jamaica to bring the cause and concerns facing labour before the Conciliation Board. The necessity for Bustamante to be part of the PNP was important to Manley as an attempt to fuse grass-roots organisation with the campaign for self-government and the nurturing of the nationalist spirit.
The fledgling Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) formed by Bustamante in 1938 was threatened by chaos and collapse by 1940 when Busta was detained under the Defence Regulations. During the 17 months of his incarceration, it was Manley, Nethersole, the Hill brothers, and other PNP stalwarts who worked loyally to keep the BITU alive, and in fact, contributed to its most significant growth during that period.
Between 1939 and 1942 there was an organic link between the PNP and the BITU, and the programmatic platform of the PNP included political education of the masses, from which the BITU membership would have benefited.
That common cause between the PNP and the trade union movement as an integral part of the 'progressive' movement against colonialism and the Crown Colony system would have been affected by the splitting of the labour movement in 1942.
Manley was again very instrumental in the formation of the Trade Union Advisory Council (TUAC) in 1939. He persuaded Governor Arthur Richards that he could get a group of responsible persons together to act as an advisory committee to the trade unions.
This idea may have saved the nascent trade union movement from being destroyed once again as it was the intention of the autocratic governor to use a state of emergency to reverse the tide of working-class militancy. That militancy was what Manley sought to guide into 'constructive results'.
When the TUAC was set up on February 21, 1939, Manley became its legal counsel with no greater ambition to be its chairman or leader.
It was Manley, the labour leader, who in 1941 organised a strike among sugar workers in St Thomas which lasted for six weeks, and introduced the concept of the strike fund which fed and paid the strikers for three weeks. He negotiated an eight per cent wage increase and established the principle of tying sugar wages to the cost of living.
When the Asylum strike broke in 1946, it was Manley as labour leader who negotiated the final settlement which established, for the first time in Jamaica, the right of government workers to be represented by the union of their choice. And when in 1947 the protest march of thousands in the third Gleaner strike arose, Manley led the march, and subsequently successfully defended 63 picketers and union leaders who were charged for breaches under the Trade Union Law.
Manley as labour leader argued the case for the sugar workers before the Wage Arbitration Tribunal in 1951, and in 1953 he appeared on behalf of bauxite workers in Jamaica before the Honeyman Arbitration where he expounded on his demand that the wages of the bauxite workers should be treated as a special category.
When the split between the PNP and the TUC occurred in 1952, it was important that the party remained linked to a trade union. Manley, Glasspole, Nethersole and others formed the National Workers' Union (NWU), and Manley served on the executive as legal adviser. The structure of the union was democratic in nature and deliberately set up to be managed at the top by a triumvirate so as to avoid any attempt at proprietaryship. Ironically, it is this struggle for proprietaryship which presently engulfs the NWU and threatens its future.
History will recall that more than any other party at the time, the PNP developed programmes for labour. In 1945, the focus was on higher wages and shorter working conditions and there were plans to introduce: (i) minimum wage legislation; (ii) control of cost of living to maintain real wages; (iii) an act providing for holiday with pay; and (iv) the development of new industries.
Manley himself was a delegate at the historic Caribbean Labour Congress Annual Conference in 1947, and at every party conference at which he spoke he paid tribute to the workers and the work of the trade union movement in advancing the interest of the working class.
It is part of our common error to believe that leaders must always be in front, or that those in front are necessarily the true leaders. Manley provided the intellectual leadership which ensured the survival of the trade union movement he led, without title or position.
Along with his cousin Bustamante, they played a complementary role in helping to shape the contours of the modern trade union movement. If history is to be more than Donn Piatt's 'crystallisation of popular beliefs', then Manley's contribution to the development of the labour movement must be given equal prominence, and he should be appropriately referred to as labour leader. Bustamante, I am sure, would have argued for no less.
It is easy to praise famous men without subjecting their deeds to objective scrutiny. Manley's role from where he stood, when objectively analysed, provided the matrix for trade union development, and has surely in Trowbridge's words, "stalk a silhouette sublime, across the canvas of (our) time".
Athlete, scholar, soldier, lawyer, politician, statesman, Father of the Nation, must be added to the name of Norman Manley, in this the 75th year of the PNP and the trade union movement.
Danny Roberts is head of the Hugh Lawson Shearer Trade Union Education Institute at the Consortium for Social Development and Research, Open Campus, University of the West Indies, Mona.