Equal Rights & Pay
The Founding Of The BITU & The JLP
1938 - THE
In that year, workers around the island had recognized as their leader a tall, striking middle-aged man, with a shock of somewhat unruly hair that seemed merely a reflection of his unbridled energy.
Alexander Bustamante, born William Alexander Clarke in Blenheim, Hanover, had made a name for himself negotiating on their behalf, addressing workers and their issues at public meetings and presenting their cases in the nation's newspaper as well as British papers. On Thursday, May 19, 1938, soon after he had negotiated a settlement for Kingston dockworkers, Bustamante was confronted with another dockworker situation. The Kingston dockworkers of the United Fruit Company (UFC) refused to load the ships until their demands for a wage increase were met but the UFC refused to discuss payment terms until work resumed.
On Friday, May 20,
the workers went on strike and all weekend Bustamante travelled from meeting
to meeting exhorting the people to stay focused and united and stay on
strike for better wages. The strike held and on Monday, May 23, a massive
crowd gathered at Parade where Bustamante mounted Queen Victoria's statue
and began to speak. All eyes were focused on him as he assured the workers
that with this show of solidarity he would be able to go forward and negotiate
on their behalf from a position of strength. He called upon the people
to go home in peace and stay united. As he descended from the statue,
however, a group of policemen ordered the people to disperse and aimed
their rifles. Incensed, Bustamante bared his chest and declared, "If you
are going to shoot, shoot me, but leave these defenceless, hungry people
alone." He then called upon the people to sing the National Anthem, God
Save the Queen, at which point the police were forced to lower their rifles
and stand at attention while Bustamante led the crowd safely away. In
spite of his request for non-violence, after that meeting rioting did
erupt throughout the city and soldiers were heard firing bayonets.
The next day, May 24, Bustamante, along with his colleague labour leader and fellow orator, St. William Grant, were remanded in custody by a police inspector. St. William Grant protested and was badly beaten. Bustamante submitted peacefully to arrest.
Bustamante and Grant were charged with inciting unlawful assembling and obstructing the police inspector. They were refused bail and were tormented by being stripped down to their underwear. The news of their arrest sparked numerous upheavals all over the island as workers showed solidarity with their dramatic leader.
On Saturday, May 28, 1938, Bustamante and Grant appeared before the courts and were set free as the judge was afraid of incurring the material and human costs of continued rioting. Upon his release Bustamante thanked his cousin Norman for his assistance and introduced the idea of a trade union (something Manley himself had also spoken of) as a way of organizing and strengthening advocacy for the workers cause. The dockworkers were eventually victorious and the roots of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) were laid.
In 1939, however, Bustamante was increasingly at odds with the new governor Sir Arthur Richards who was concerned over the growing power of the union movement and its leader Bustamante. Once again Norman Manley stepped in as mediator and a Trade Union Advisory Council (TU(A)C) was established, somewhat as a check of the power of the BITU. This council was intended to promote the orderly and progressive development of trade unionism. Manley was the (TU(A)C)'s legal counsel and the chairman was lawyer N. N. Nethersole. The BITU was granted three seats (one of which was held by Bustamante) making it a minority force in a body slated to take over the negotiation of major disputes. The workers were concerned as they felt their choice of a leader was being overlooked and soon enough the BITU and the (TU(A)C) parted ways and at the same time Bustamante's membership in the political party formed by his cousin Manley and Nethersole and others a year earlier, began to wane.
In 1939 World War
II erupted and Jamaica, like all British territories, was plunged into
a state of emergency under Wartime Emergency Regulations. An internment
camp was set up at Up Park Camp where citizens of any countries with which
Britain might be at war, as well as anyone considered a threat to the
war effort, were locked up. Governor Richards felt that Bustamante's actions
in continuing to speaak out on the workers' behalf were threatening to
the war effort and when addressing restless waterfront workers in September
of 1940 he stated, "I have stood for peace from the first day I have been
in public life, but my patience is exhausted. This time if need be there
will be blood from the rampage to the grave," that was all Richards needed
to order his internment under the Defence of the Realm Act. Numerous strikes
and protest marches resulted but Bustamante remained locked up for 17
months acquiring near martyr status. During that time Manley interceded
to help maintain the running of the BITU with Bustamante's blessing.
launching of the JLP
The Jamaica Labour Party's headquarters was once found on Retirement Rd and today can be found on Belmont Rd in Kingston
Sources: Bustamante, G. (1997) The Memoirs of Lady Bustamante. Kingston: Kingston Publishers Ltd. Black, C. V. (1983) The History of Jamaica. London: Longman Group UK Ltd., Eaton, E. (1975). Alexander Bustamante and Modern Jamaica. Kingston: Kingston Publishers Ltd., Sherlock, P. and Bennett, H. (1998). The Story of the Jamaican People. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers. www.thejlp.com.
Special thanks to Troy Caine for his assistance with this piece.
By Dr. Rebecca Tortello
A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted September 09, 2002
Copyright 2001-2 . Produced by Go-Jamaica.com