Pioneers in Caribbean integration


Jerome Teelucksingh

IN 2023, THE Caribbean Community (Caricom) observed its 50th anniversary.

Prior to its formation in 1973, the elusive Caribbean integration was pioneered by dynamic labour organisations. In fact, it took unusual courage and determination for trade unions and working class groups to emerge as the most vibrant entity in the colonial era which dared to make proposals for the socio-economic and political developments of the colonies.

It is obvious that the British Labour Party and the Colonial Office in the UK failed to initiate appropriate political changes for the West Indian colonies, which would have promoted integration as envisioned in the initial British Guiana Labour Conference in 1926. Failure, in this regard, is best understood not in the weakness of the labour movement, but in the inflexibility and lethargy of the Colonial Office in addressing the political needs of the colonies.

The external environment also intensified the burden of West Indian leadership, particularly the crisis of global capitalism during the 1930s and the ravages of the Great Depression. The depression created socio-economic challenges which absorbed the energies of labour leaders in the various colonies and impeded the regionalisation movement.

Within the empire, Britain was unable to contain the spirit of nationalism which demanded recognition of the sovereignty of colonial peoples. Labour remained the catalyst for change and sought to mobilise the Caribbean peoples through an integrated labour movement.

The second Guianese and West Indian Labour Conference was convened in June 1938. Delegates from Trinidad included Adrian Cola Rienzi of the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU) and Capt Arthur Cipriani of the Trinidad Labour Party (TLP). They were given the mandate to map out plans for the co-operation of trade unions among various British West Indian colonies.

The presence of the delegation from Suriname indicated growing support for a regional labour fraternity.

At the historic conference, Rienzi proposed the formation of the British Guiana and West Indies Labour Congress (BGWILC) to replace the inactive Guianese and West Indian Federation of Trade Unions and Labour Parties. In addition, he urged the delegates to work for the transfer of economic and political power from the capitalist class to the working class. Rienzi also appealed for the nationalisation of the sugar and oil industries.

TT was the venue for the third Guianese and West Indian Labour Conference, which was held in November 1938. The members of the executive of the newly formed BGWILC comprised representatives from TT, Suriname, British Guiana and Barbados.

The main objective of the conference was the formulation of a regional perspective for presentation to the Moyne Commission, which toured the British West Indies during 1938-1939.

The BGWILC expressed its commitment to improve working conditions for labour and to forge stronger bonds of intercolonial solidarity among workers through regular contact with trade unions in the Caribbean.

The fourth British Guiana and West Indian Labour Conference was held from February 28-March 1, 1944, in British Guiana. Among the distinguished representatives were TA Marryshow from Grenada, Grantley Adams of Barbados, Albert Gomes (deputy mayor of Port of Spain and president of the Federated Workers Trade Union), Capt Cipriani and Vivian Henry of the TLP, and Theo Jean of the OWTU.

At the conference, the general secretary of the British Guiana Trades Union Congress, HJM Hubbard, appealed for closer contact among trade unions in the British West Indies. Additionally, one of the resolutions passed at the conference requested governments in the various colonies to permit the free movement of labour leaders within the region.

The painstaking search for a confederation of labour reached its zenith in 1945 with the formation of the Caribbean Labour Congress (CLC). The founding conference was convened by the Barbados Workers Union, primarily to create a strong regional labour movement linking trade unions and labour-based political parties. The conference was held from September 17-27, comprising 23 delegates representing nine colonies.

This was the first labour conference in the West Indies which embraced so many territories and it was a historic moment, with more direct contact between labour in Jamaica and organisations in the Eastern Caribbean and British Guiana. In retrospect, the CLC was the first successful venture in working-class integration at an administrative level, and the only genuinely independent federation of labour organisations in the region.

Undoubtedly, failed political experiments during the 19th and 20th centuries undermined labour’s integration efforts. One of the outstanding successes of the labour gatherings was the closer collaboration among trade unions in the British West Indian colonies.


"Pioneers in Caribbean integration"

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