Father of the Trade Union Movement in Guyana
He is well known as the father of the Trade Union movement in Guyana.. He established the British Guiana Labour Union, the first successful trade union in the colony in January 1919. He lived through two world wars. A statue in his honour stands on the grounds of Parliament Buildings, in Georgetown.
This profile is based on information obtained from these internet websites:
1. http://www.landofsixpeoples.com/news402/ns1050337.htm. This contains a tribute
by Mellissa Ifill, headed. ‘Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow and the birth of the Trade Union Movement in Guyana’ published in Stabroek News of May 3, 2001.
2. http://www.guyana.org/features/guyanastory/guyana_story.html. This features the book ‘The Guyana Story’ (From Earliest Times to Independence), published in 2005. It contains 182 chapters, of which chapters 96 and 97 are devoted to Critchlow –headed ‘Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow: The early years’ and ‘Critchlow in the workers’ struggle’, respectively.
‘The Guyana Story’ is a monumental work among others written by His Excellency Dr Odeen Ishmael, Guyanese Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the State of Kuwait. The statement below appears under the title:
‘The Guyana Story is a collection of short essays which attempt to relate the story of the Guyanese people in a generally chronological order. It is obvious that not all the details of the periods described are included, but the aim of the author is to build an awareness among young Guyanese in particular, of the rich heritage of the people of Guyana.
‘It is hoped, too, that The Guyana Story will encourage readers to do further research into various aspects of Guyanese history. By knowing about our past, we will be in a better position to understand and appreciate the present.’
Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow was born in Georgetown on the 18 December 1884. His father James Nathaniel Critchlow had emigrated from Barbados and was employed by the Bookers company as a wharf foreman. His mother was Julia Elizabeth, nee Daniels, from Essequibo.
Hubert attended the Bedford Wesleyan Primary School. He was in Standard 4 (equivalent to Grade 6 in American schools), when his father died. He was only 13 years old then and he decided to leave school and start to work to help maintain his home. He started to work as an apprentice at the Demerara Foundry. Later he became a dock worker on the waterfront.
At school, he was good at sports and he continued to be so, well into his twenties. He became a popular sports figure in the country during the period 1905-1914 when he was the country’s middle-distance athletic champion. He was also a good footballer and cricketer.
Hubert grew up in a world where rights for workers as we know today were not even a pipe dream. Workers pay and living conditions were not matters for negotiation. Trade Unionism had not been established for too long in Britain and America.
When Hubert was a young man, the European powers with their policies to expand their empires and control territory, drove themselves headlong into a war of all wars, the Great War, known as the First World War. In that world, British Guiana was a tiny pawn, the government of which together with big businesses operated to suit the needs of Great Britain the imperial power. In that world, inequality reigned supreme, employers in their castle, and workers in their hovel.
In British Guiana in the early 1900s working and living conditions for workers were horrendous. Those fortunate to find work at a time of high unemployment faced a long working day for low wages and rising cost of living. In Georgetown many people lived in shantytowns with poor water supply, little or no drainage or garbage disposal. Disease was rampant, infant mortality rates were high and life expectancy low. No organization existed to make representation to employers on behalf of their workers to secure better wages and improved working conditions.
The sheer injustices and inhumanity meted out to workers drove them from time to time to strike out in total desperation, to risk their livelihood and their safety, in a basic human instinct for survival, in order to better their lot, but to no avail. When workers protested in Georgetown and in the countryside for better pay and working conditions, the government sided with the employers and quelled workers’ demonstrations with military force. Some protesters were even killed. Government did not see it as their role to have laws about income and hours of work, or grant recognition to organised labour unions.
Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow was 21 years old in 1905 when as a dock worker on the waterfront, he actively spoke up for his fellow workers during a strike in Georgetown, He became popular and the seed was planted then for the birth of the trade Union movement in Guyana.‘Cometh the Hour Cometh the Man.’
Mellissa Ifill, in her tribute, referred to above, describing the poor working and living conditions in the country in the early 1900s stated inter alia:
‘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…
‘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…’
The first world war made matters worse for working people. Although many strikes during the war years were unsuccessful, there were some gains. The waterfront strike in January 1917 yielded a 10% increase in wages, and a reduction of daily working hours from 10 and a half hours to 9 hours. A strike in December 1917 yielded another 10% increase in wages.
Critchlow became the undisputed leader of waterfront workers and workers generally but
he soon paid the price when he led a petition in 1917-18, for an 8-hour working day. The Chamber of Commerce pressured him to withdraw his name from the petition. He refused to do so. He was immediately fired from his job on March 1918, and blacklisted from obtaining employment.
Being unemployed, he devoted his time and energies to the campaign for an 8-hour work day. In December 1918, he led a small delegation of workers to the Governor, Sir Wilfred Colet. After this meeting he decided that the way forward was through a trade union, and he immediately started to make arrangements for its formation. The British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU), the first successful trade union in the colony was eventually established on the 11 January 1919. Critchlow had received support from all over the country and abroad, particularly from trade unions in Britain.
Critchlow was employed on a full time basis by the union. He was Secretary / Treasurer with a salary of $20 per month. His salary was increased to $120 in 1920 in order to satisfy the income qualification for a seat in the Combined court, the ‘parliament’ at the time. There he could make political representations on behalf of workers. He never stopped being a spokesman for the workers. He publicised their grievances and demanded improved working conditions and better wages for them.
The union experienced numerous problems in its early years. Employers saw it as a force aimed at fomenting industrial unrest, and issued threats to workers who were union members. Despite this, its membership grew rapidly. By the end of its first year, it had more than 7,000 financial members comprising waterfront workers, tradesmen, sea defence and road workers, railroad workers, balata bleeders and miners, some Government employees and hundreds of sugar estate labourers. Branches of the union were also set up in various parts of the country. By January 1920, there were 13000 members, and the unions savings were $9700.
The Union gained many improvements 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 was legal recognition for trade unions in June 1921. This recognition was achieved with the support of the Colonial Office in London and the British Labour Party.
Dr Ishmael in ‘Critchlow in the Workers’ Struggle’ stated inter alia:
‘A serious unemployment crisis developed in the early 1920s, following the end of the World War, and there were strikes and riots in Georgetown in 1924. Since similar problems occurred in the British West Indies, a strong solidarity among the trade unions was forged in all the territories. A number of West Indian labour conferences also took place, and the BGLU played a leading role in all of them. During this period, Critchlow served as Secretary-Treasurer of the union; C. T. Andrews was elected President of the union in 1922.
‘Spearheaded by Critchlow, the union also campaigned vigorously for the reduction of rents in Georgetown. At that time, most workers, particularly those on the waterfront, lived in rented buildings in the city. When a rent reduction was won in 1922, a committee of tenants designated the 3 July 1922 as “Critchlow Day.”
Trade unionism was now firmly established in the colony and the BGLU expanded its international links. Critchlow represented the union at the British Commonwealth Labour Conference in 1924, 1925 and 1930 in England. The British Caribbean and West Indian Labour Conference was inaugurated in Georgetown in 1926, and Critchlow was a leading representative at this, and at subsequent conferences. In 1938, he was elected to the position of Assistant Secretary of the Conference.
His experience in the workers’ struggle, led Critchlow to the view that the established capitalist system was not bringing benefits to the working class. In December 1930, in an address to members of the union, he called for workers to fight against capitalism, as practised by the employers, and to struggle for the establishment of socialism.
In 1931, he travelled to Germany to represent the union at the International Committee of Trade Union Workers Conference. In 1932, on an invitation from the trade union movement of the Soviet Union, he visited Russia. On his return, he spoke of the benefits Russian workers were receiving. The local press attacked him and called him a “Red, a Communist and a Bolshevik.”
A number of Unions were formed to represent workers in various areas, and in 1941the British Guiana Trades’ Union Council (TUC) was established, with Critchlow as its first General Secretary. By 1943, 14 unions were affiliated to this umbrella body which, shortly after, joined the World Federation of Trades Unions (WFTU).
Critchlow also championed demands for the extension of the right to vote so that all workers could participate in national elections. Some leaders of other unions also agitated for this cause.
In 1943, Critchlow and Ayube Edun, of the Man Power Citizens’ Association (MPCA), which was formed a few years before, were nominated by the Governor to represent workers in the Legislative Council. In 1944, Critchlow was appointed to the Executive Council (the Governor’s Cabinet), and he served in this position until 1947. He also served as the Government’s nominee on the Georgetown City Council from December 1945 to December 1950.
In the 1947 elections, Critchlow contested and won the South Georgetown constituency. However as a result of an election petition, his election was declared null and void, and he was barred from contesting for a seat in the Legislative Council for five years. It was during these elections that Dr. Cheddi Jagan was first elected to the Legislative Council.
In 1948, with the advent of the Cold War, the WFTU was split. The TUC withdrew from it and joined the pro-West break-away group, the International Confederation of Free Trades Unions (ICFTU). Critchlow represented the TUC at the ICFTU conference in London in 1949, and was elected as a “substitute” member of the Executive Council to represent the West Indian group. Later in the year he attended an International Confederation of Workers meeting in Havana, Cuba.
Despite his increased administrative and official Government duties, Critchlow continued to actively represent workers in various parts of the country. In 1950, the Government appointed an Advisory Committee to examine cost of living issues and to make recommendations. These included a minimum wage of $1.52 per day, but Critchlow, who was a member of the Committee, issued a minority report calling for a minimum wage of $2.00 per day.
Dr Ishmael continued. ‘For his outstanding public service, he was awarded the medal of Officer of the British Empire (OBE) by King George VI in 1951. On the following year, he resigned as General Secretary of both the BGLU and the TUC, but he served on the Arbitration Panel that examined the wage dispute for waterfront workers in Grenada. After this period, he was generally not invited to activities organised by the TUC. During the 1957 May Day parade, a contingent of workers led by Dr. Cheddi Jagan saw Critchlow standing by his gate to watch the parade. Dr. Jagan broke ranks and walked over to the gate and took him to march at the head of the parade. Later, at the demands of the workers, he was allowed to address the May Day rally.
‘While Critchlow served as General Secretary of the TUC, May Day (1 May) was observed annually by unionised workers with marches and rallies. He made regular demands during his annual address to workers for the day to be declared a public holiday, but this was not achieved until 1958.
‘This outstanding working class leader died on the 10 May 1958 at the age of 74 years. In 1963, at the request of Dr. Jagan, who was then the Premier, the famous Guyanese artist E.R. Burrows sculpted a statue of Critchlow. This (bronze) statue was later placed (on a two-metre high pedestal) on the grounds of Parliament Buildings.’
The Hubert Critchlow statue on the lawns of the compound of Parliament Building was unveiled on December 2, 1964 by the then Premier, Dr. Cheddi Jagan. It is a tribute to Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, the father of the Trade Union movement in Guyana.
We acknowledge with grateful thanks the information provided in various publications by well known writers, journalists and photographers.
Websites accessed April 15 2014
April 15, 2014