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posted 31 Aug 2020, 20:23 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 31 Aug 2020, 20:29 ]
This article is a lightly edited extract from a paper written by Comrade Alva Allen entitled THE NATURE AND AGENDA OF THE EARLY LABOUR MOVEMENT BETWEEN 1830 AND 1940

did not resolve the principal contradiction between oppressor and oppressed, exploiter and exploited. Nor did it resolve the contradiction between metropole and colony. It however, resolved the contradiction between slave owner and slave.

It is therefore suggested that in the period after Emancipation, the emerging working class, through the early Labour movement, would take steps to settle this unfinished business as the opposing aspects of the main contradiction fought each other but under new conditions and new forms.

Thus it is that the period of apprenticeship that was to be served by the slaves until 1840, was shortened by them because they continued to resist this new form of oppression and exploitation. Here, the whip of chattel slavery was replaced by the “starvation wage”. It is this continuing class struggle that forced the early end of Apprenticeship on1st August, 1838 which now fully freed all slaves from slavery throughout the British colonies. However, it was only in 1863 that the Dutch abolished slavery in their colonies.

The next item on the Agenda for the ex-slaves was to make their freedom a reality by ceasing their dependence on the plantation to provide them with a means of livelihood through wages in exchange for their labour. They therefore turned to accessing land which they used to provide themselves with a means of livelihood.

Their move away from the plantation gave them a sense of control over their own lives and independence from Massa even though they still had to work on the estates for wages. By having their own plots of land, their ability to bargain with their employers was enhanced since they could withdraw their labour from the estates and fall back on their subsistence plots.

Gradually, as independent producers, their bargaining power as well as their economic and social security also increased. Consequently, the rise of this new peasantry constituted not only an economic alternative but also an autonomous and more egalitarian way of life. While the planters sought to consolidate the plantation economy and system, the former slaves sought to develop a quite different economy from that imposed by their former owners.

The immediate agenda of the early Labour Movement is demonstrated in several ways. For the ex-slaves’ family land, not only symbolized their freedom, and provided property rights, prestige and personhood; family land was also the basis for the creation of family lines and the maximization of kinship ties.

The Caribbean freed women not only got the opportunity to work on the family farm, engage in marketing and devote more attention to rearing their children, but they were also “engaged in reconstructing the society in terms of their values, including the idea that women had rights to economic independence, whether or not they were wives and mothers.”

In addition, the ex-slaves revived their co-operative values and activities, for example, “in co-operative work groups, community churches, and religious rituals, mutual aid societies, and credit institutions.” Indeed, it is correct to say, that the nature and agenda of the early Labour Movement is the direct result of the region’s colonial history.

While the ex-slaves sought to bring their freedom to reality, the plantocracy developed new forms of coercion in order to sustain the plantations and the profitability of the colonies. The passage of Master and Servants Acts to fine and imprison workers for misconduct and breach of contract. The colonial and propertied class approach to chattel slavery was virtually identical to that of wage labour. For although slavery was dead, it was replaced by a regime, almost equally oppressive imbued with the slavery spirit.

This is borne out in the arrogant and overbearing attitude of overseers and managers towards the African ex-slaves. It is also borne out in the exorbitant land rents imposed by the landlords against the ex-slaves to deter them from acquiring land so that they could not have any independent means of livelihood and therefore perpetuate their dependence on the plantation.

Then too, there was high food prices, lack of social services, high indirect taxation such as import duties, cost of licences for those who were shop keepers, and poll tax. Also, the lack of social services coupled with rising unemployment, as the population began to expand, and underemployment, all were designed to work on the plantations.

These were some of the activities in which the colonial powers engaged that forced the early labour movement to fashion its own agenda for freedom, dignity, respect and its own moral economy based on its own ideas.

The emerging and free working class now had to realize their goals amidst these harsh and cruel measures. As if that was not enough, the state apparatus continued to be an instrument in the favour of the ruling class to whom all power was distributed. The majority of the population comprising the early labour movement continued to have no say in the shaping of their society.

Legislation was passed to ensure that property qualification for the franchise excluded them. In the colonies, the planters continued to dominate the Oligarchic Legislative Assemblies and also the nominated assembly in Trinidad. The British Government ensured that the concessions made to the planters would perpetuate their control over the political, judicial and law enforcement machinery of the colonies.

To add insult to injury, the cost of this ever expanding system shifted from the slave owners to the working class, upon whom the burden of taxation fell most heavily. Now they had to fund the cost of their own punishment. The local judiciary entrenched the rule of the planter class; After all, the magistrates were planters. Clearly, justice would be one-sided.

The storm had gathered once more and the class struggle was ready to explode again as the labour movement began to advance its agenda not only for better wages and working conditions but also for respect, justice and the right to determine their own lives which ought not to be determined by Colonialism any longer. The working class therefore, began to respond with strikes in Jamaica in 1838 which became violent in 1839 and 1848 to the extent that the Executive intervened to forestall a class war.