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Celebrating our labour icons

in your interestAs the nation of Barbados celebrates its 50th anniversary as an independent nation, it has more to celebrate than its political achievements, the legacy of politicians and parliamentarians, and the fact that the island has the third oldest parliament in the Commonwealth. Politicians, for what it is worth, generally use occasions such as these to bask in the successes of individual political parties and their leaders.

Ironically, some of the National Heroes of Barbados are also celebrated as icons of labour. The Rt. Excellent Sir Grantley Adams, the Rt. Excellent Charles Duncan O’Neal, the Rt. Excellent Sir Frank Leslie Walcott and the Rt. Excellent Samuel Jackman Prescod are known to have been directly associated with partisan politics. This is substantiated by the fact that those named all served in the Parliament of Barbados.

It is fair to say that many Caribbean trade union leaders were themselves popular political figures. Sir Alexander Bustamante of Jamaica, Sir Eric Gairy of Grenada and  Dr Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago, are three examples of those who can be considered as icons of labour.

Those who entered the fray of politics during the colonial period would have done this in the interest of bringing about legislative reform to improve the social and economic life of the people of their individual nation states and the region on a whole. These were persons who sought to mobilize the masses and to bring political influence and persuasion to bear in effecting fundamental changes.

While politicians have shone like beacons, it should not be forgotten that as leaders they would hardly have been successful if they didn’t have the support of the masses. The long and short of the matter is that the path to success does not rest solely with the politicians, but more so on the will of the people to ensure that change comes about.

It is for this reason that the contributions of persons like the Rt. Excellent Sarah Ann Gill in challenging the colonial system is to be applauded. The nation is forever indebted to the Rt. Excellent Bussa, and the many others who sacrificed their lives in the cause of ensuring that change came about. The free and democratic Caribbean societies which our citizens enjoy today, is to be credited to the advocates for change in both the pre and post-independence era.

Putting this into perspective, it is appropriate to state that in the case of Barbados, the nation benefitted from the passing of the baton from the pre-independence era where the pioneer work had been completed by persons such as the Rt. Excellent Sir Grantley Adams and the Rt. Excellent Sir Hugh Springer, to the independence era where the charge was led by the Rt. Excellent Errol Barrow.

The point is highlighted that trade unionists have played a significant role in the shaping, building and developing of the nation. Trade union leaders in the contemporary age have had to contend with a new set of challenges. While they are not constrained by the colonial powers, they are yet confronted by an entrenched capitalist system and a political system that maintains many of the trimmings and trappings of the colonial past.

On the other side of the coin, trade union leaders are called upon to respect the fact that they represent a far more educated and knowledgeable populace, whose heightened awareness and consciousness reside in the right of the individual to vote, and an understanding of their constitutional and human rights. Both political and trade union leaders are therefore now expected to be exceptionally perceptive, visionary and progressive.

Those who tend to rely on charisma to propel their way to iconic status, might find that their dreams will be short-lived, simply because of their short sightedness.

(Dennis DePeiza is a labour management consultant. Send your comments to:

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