Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow and the birth of the Trade Union Movement in Guyana
By Mellissa Ifill
May 3, 2001
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Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow stands tall as the most important figure in the birth and growth of the labour movement in British Guiana. He was dedicated and determined, as were his lieutenants, to bring an end to the horrific and depressed conditions that the working-class people in the colony of British Guiana were forced to endure.
In the early 1900s, both working and living conditions for all categories of workers were horrendous. Those workers who were "fortunate" to secure employment in the context of high unemployment and underemployment in the colony were faced with a long working day for low, fixed remuneration in the face of the rising cost of living. No organization existed to make representation to employers on behalf of their workers in the latter's struggle to secure a just and humane wage and improved working conditions. In fact, the Government's support of the employers to the detriment of the workers was evident in their failure to institute any laws to standardize income and hours of labour and to grant legal status to trade unions in the colony. In addition, the state defended the plantocracy and business community in their exploitation of the workers and even employed the military power at its disposal to quell workers' demonstrations.
Meanwhile, an examination of the economic circumstances of British Guiana in the early 20th century reveals not simply high taxes, declining wages and unemployment, but also a rapid increase in the cost of living and a monocrop economy in recession. Although by the early 1880s, the economy had recovered from the post-Emancipation labour crisis, it wasn't too long afterwards that there was a global slump in the sugar industry with the colony deriving significantly less for its exports from around 1896 and this trend continued into the first years of the 20th century. The decline in profits translated into declining wages for labourers in the sugar industry and other categories of skilled workers whose employment prospects were connected to the industry. A similar decline was also evident in the rice and gold industries. The unemployment and underemployment that characterised the colony were exacerbated by the high direct and indirect taxes that were imposed on the poorest segments of the population. While those commodities used by the planters enjoyed low duties or were exempt from duties and taxes, those basic consumer goods needed by the poorer segment of the society, such as flour, oatmeal, corn, dried fish and rice, were heavily taxed. Further, while the emergent Creole middle classes faced onerous taxes and required licences to operate as porters, hire-cart drivers, shopkeepers and hucksters, the estates, on the contrary, benefited from reduced income taxes and export duties.
In the early 1900s, the colony was also facing continuous deterioration of the already inadequate social infrastructure. The living conditions in Georgetown were described as deplorable, with many residents dwelling in shantytowns with inadequate potable water supply and little or no drainage and garbage disposal. Diseases were rampant and infant mortality rates were high, while life expectancy was low.
It was within this context of rapidly decaying economic and social circumstances, that trade unionism in British Guiana was born. The immediate origins of the trade union movement can, however, be traced to a strike by waterfront workers for increased wages in November and December 1905 in Georgetown, which was led by Critchlow. These workers faced opposition from the uncompromising shipping companies, and, the conflict between the shipping companies and the workers that had deteriorated into rioting and bloodshed was eventually settled after the British troops had been summoned. At an address to the World Trade Union Conference in 1945, Critchlow detailed the workers' woes and demands in the 1905 strike that had ultimately failed.
Our working hours were 10 1/2. The system of a quarter day existed. There was no overtime for night work. We asked the employers to change these conditions. The reply was that we must take them or go. I organized a strike on the waterfront in December 1905. Our aims were for an increase of pay, which was very low. Truckers (called boys although adult men) made two shillings a day. They could scarcely get a whole day's work, taking cargo to the barn.
There was no trade union, and the employers refused. So I got the working men, boys together, and they agreed that when there were six boats in the harbour they must strike. A great thing and at that time I did not know that all the estates in the country followed us and struck on account of low wages.
It was Critchlow's participation and role in this strike that catapulted him into the public eye and gave him added authority and credibility as a workers leader. The failure of this 1905 strike, which was partially due to the organizational weakness of the workers, clearly demonstrated to Critchlow that there was a pressing need for a trade union in the colony. This need was also recognized by Dr. Rohlehr, a middle-class spokesman for the workers, who also called for the establishment of a trade union in January 1906. In the latter half of 1906, there was a meeting held at the Industrial Institute in Georgetown to explore this possibility. However, it wasn't until 1914 that the first trade union was established in British Guiana.
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 heightened the need for a trade union in the colony since the working classes were confronted with continuous increases in the cost of living and deterioration in the social and economic conditions. Consequently, there were many strikes and protests during the war years - most of which did not achieve their objectives. A number of the strikes during this period, however, did provide some gains for the workers. The more important of those largely successful strikes were the strike by waterfront workers which lasted for 13 days during January 1917 in Georgetown, in which workers secured a 10 percent increase on their wages and a reduction of the daily working hours from 10 hours 30 minutes to 9 hours, and, the December 1917 strike in Georgetown in which workers obtained an additional 10 percent wage increase. The role of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow in the strikes during the war years was well known. During this period, Critchlow reaffirmed his role as the undisputed leader of workers, and particularly waterfront workers. In fact, because of his initiative and proposals, Critchlow is credited as being the main force that was responsible for the gains achieved by workers in the January 1917 and December 1917 strikes.
Critchlow continued to articulate the needs and demands of the workers in early 1918, since even those gains that had been made in January and December 1917 were obliterated by the constant rise in the cost of living. He paid the ultimate price for his continuous efforts to enhance the working conditions in the colony, when he was fired in March 1918, after he declined to withdraw an appeal to the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce for an 8-hour working day. Unable to secure employment in Georgetown after his dismissal, Critchlow took the decision to dedicate all his energies to coordinating and organising workers.
With the support of the workers in the colony who came from various occupations and worked in a number of industries - particularly the waterfront workers - and assistance from trade unions in Britain, Critchlow established the first successful trade union in the colony in January 1919 - the British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU). He functioned as Secretary-Treasurer of this body and initially received a salary of $20 per month. This salary was increased to $120 in 1920 so that Critchlow could satisfy the income qualification for a seat in the Combined Court so that he could make political representation on the workers' behalf.
The BGLU quickly established itself as an important player in the colony. The union embarked on an intensive expansion drive in the early years of its existence, holding public meetings in urban Georgetown and in the rural areas and branches of the BGLU were established in the countryside. Therefore by January 1920 the membership of the BGLU stood at 13 000 and it had savings amounting to $9700. More importantly, in those initial years the union made significant strides and gained a number of concessions in the effort to improve workers' conditions of work, including: the elimination of night and Sunday labour in bakeries; a number of salary increases; and the appointment of a commission to look into the living conditions, salaries and any other circumstance affecting stevedores. One of the most significant achievements of the BGLU under Critchlow, however, was the acquisition of legal recognition for trade unions in June 1921. This recognition, which was achieved despite strong opposition from the members of the Combined Court, was a result of both Critchlow and his lieutenants' sterling efforts and the support of the Colonial Office in London and the British Labour Party.