Trade Unions form a significant part of the political scenery in Jamaica. Long before they were recognized by the Jamaican Constitution in 1962, trade unions were pivotal in the protection of the rights of the working class in Jamaica. After decades of injustice meted out to enslaved Africans and, later on, to working class groups, the trade union movement emerged to eliminate the exploitation of workers. Though it was not until the labour riots of 1938 that trade unions came into prominence, they were a part of the Jamaican landscape for some time before.
When we talk about trade union leaders, we often talk about persons like Alexander Bustamante, Norman Manley, Hugh Lawson Shearer, and Michael Manley. Yet, not many of us talk about Garvey in this context. However, it should be no surprise that Garvey would have been involved in the trade union movement as he had always had a special interest in the welfare of the working class. He spent most of his life representing the interests of these workers on numerous issues.
By the late 1920s, Garvey, through his movement, had evoked a strong sense of black consciousness and black nationalism, worldwide. New leaders emerged who were ripe with, “a national spirit centred on racial self-respect…” according to the Most Hon. P.J. Patterson in his presentation entitled, “The History and Development of the Modern Labour Movement: Lessons from the Past, Prospects for the Future.” They sought to end decades of marginalization and exploitation of poor, black workers. Consequently, in 1930, Garvey, along with some of his colleagues, founded the Jamaica Workers and Labourers Association (JWLA). He was elected Chairman of the organization. The platform of the JWLA included issues such as the need for (a) a minimum wage, (b) definite (eight) hours of work, (c) housing and medical provision for workers who lived on the estates, (d) prohibition of labour for school-age children, (e) insurance against accident or failing health for all workers, and (f) a Royal Commission to investigate the condition of Jamaican workers who had little or no rights. The JWLA served as an inspiration to future labour organizations in Jamaica.
However, Garvey’s pro-labour rhetoric and efforts not only impacted the Jamaican landscape, but also greatly influenced the labour movement across the Caribbean region. According to Tony Martin, in “African and Indian Consciousness”, “The regional labour movement of the inter-war years in the British Caribbean was thoroughly Garveyite.” He seemed to have made this statement because at the time, leaders of the various union groups across the Caribbean were either Garveyites or had some connection to the movement. For example, the leader of the St. Croix Labour Union at the time, David Hamilton Jackson, was a Garvey supporter; there was a special relationship between the UNIA and the British Guiana Labour Union led by Hubert Critchlow as well as the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association; and founder of the Barbados Labour Union, Clement O. Payne was a Garveyite.
So, Garvey and the UNIA were instrumental in paving the way for the modern labour movement in the Caribbean. Through the efforts of these trade union pioneers, trade unions now exist to secure the collective bargaining rights of their members.