Labour in the West Indies – The Birth of a Workers’ Movement (1977; original edition 1939)

This account of the Caribbean labour movement in the 1930s was originally published in 1939 by Gollancz and the Fabian Society. At the time of New Beacon’s reprinting, it remained the only Caribbean-wide account of this key period in the region’s social and political history. It captures the sense of progress and hope emerging from the general strikes and workers insurrections that took place across the English-speaking Caribbean between 1935 and 1938. Although he became politically active after those years, these events were a formative context for the organisations in which John La Rose’s early political ideas developed. The book covers the founding of the Oilworkers’ Trade Union (formed 25 July 1936) and its achievements in Trinidad (29-30). La Rose was a key figure in this body throughout his life. Its author’s appeal to British trade unions to help improve understanding of the work and role of unions in the Caribbean is of clear interest to the international history of trade union activity.
 
Arthur Lewis was known for his extensive work in the field of development economics as an academic and political figure. He taught at the LSE, Manchester University, University College of the West Indies, and Princeton and acted as advisor to governments across Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. New Beacon’s republication includes a substantial afterword by Tobagan sociologist, Susan Craig, written in 1977. Her essay sets the pamphlet in relation to the post-independence context of the labour movement and class politics of the seventies. It is a polemical assessment of the impact (questionable, in her view) of Lewis’ ideas on the struggle for freedom and equality in the period following independence.
 
 
Labour in the West Indies – The Birth of a Workers’ Movement (1977; original edition 1939) by Arthur Lewis. 104pp.

Content

 
The original pamphlet falls into three main parts: an overview of social conditions in the West Indies (15-17); an account of the Labour Movement in the different islands, particularly in the 1930s (18-43); a section entitled “What Can Be Done” that addresses ongoing questions of economic policy, redistribution and political questions (44-52). These are followed by an Appendix containing resolutions from the 1938 Labour Congress, then Susan Craig’s essay written the new publication in 1977 (59-84). Lastly, there is an excerpt from the Moyne Commission in Barbados. Illustrations from the archive of PNP activist Richard Hart fill twelve black and white plates in the middle of the book.
 
March by Butlerites in 1951. Photo taken by Richard Hart. All rights reserved.
 
The text presents the narrative of the Labour Movement in the English-speaking Caribbean, focusing the period of uprisings and strikes from 1934 – 1939. It documents the rise of trade unions across principal areas of employment (oilfields, waterfront, inland transport, shops) and the subsequent entry of the working class into West Indian politics as “nothing short of a revolution” (40). These unions had substantial clout and success in securing wage improvements, though, as Lewis notes, agricultural workers, which remained the majority across the region “have proved exceedingly difficult to organise” (39). The events of 1935-38 led to the Trinidad Congress of 1938, a key moment which raised demands for “adult suffrage, dismemberment of plantations and creation of a cooperative peasant community, nationalisation of the sugar factories and public utilities, provision of old age pensions, health and unemployment insurances and reformed industrial legislation” (43). This event also signalled the continuation of a united labour movement.
 
Lewis makes several recommendations: calling for revised economic policy to address the problem of low price of West Indian exports; a programme of loans and grants (to counter British debt to the region); the development of local industries/factories (“The tourist trade offers some prospects, but seems unlikely ever to become a principal source of revenue” (46)); direct taxation; redistribution of property as supports to wage increase and improved industrial legislation; the redistribution of property (the current situation being “the last legacy of West Indian slavery” (48)).
 
 

Production

 
La Rose approached the Fabian Society about securing rights to reproduce the pamphlet in November 1975, paying £50 fee for full copyright. The book reproduces the original title-page, and resets the remainder of the text. The evocative photographs of strike action and key figures in the labour movement were sourced by Susan Craig from the Barbados Government Information Service and by La Rose from the Fabian Society. One photograph – of a joint Mayday demonstration of the People’s Freedom Movement and the Jamaica Federation of Trade Unions in 1956 – was adapted by Julian Stapleton to produce the striking cover image. It features the book’s title on a protester’s placard.
 
Susan Craig was a significant figure in the early New Beacon circle. She became close to La Rose and Sarah White in the late 1960s when she spent time in London researching a masters thesis on the Black Power movement in Britain (unpublished manuscripts, GPI). She then returned to Trinidad where she worked as a civil servant active in the Rural improvement schemes before joining the sociology department at UWI, St Augustine, Trinidad. Her letters document the economic and social unrest in Trinidad in the early 1970s. She later revised completed her doctoral thesis, published as The Changing Society of Tobago, 1838-1938: a Fractured Whole in 2008. She also published another book with New Beacon, Smiles and Blood: the Ruling Class Response to the Workers' Rebellion of 1937 in Trinidad and Tobago in 1988.
 
Susan Craig’s essay, originally planned as a shorter foreword, summarises the book, while setting the reprint in the contemporary political and cultural context. She sets out the complexities of contact between Anglo-American and Caribbean trade unions, suggesting that while encouraging responsible trade unionism, the former also suppressed militant and radical tendencies in the Caribbean labour movement (81). This situation “laid the basis for the neocolonial political economy of the postwar era” (81). She also points to the ways in which Lewis’ pamphlet touches on key questions concerning a conflict between wage labour and capital as it operates on an international scale. Her careful critique includes a discussion of Lewis’ own class position as part of the social group now in power and facing rebellions across much of the region. In an earlier letter Craig admitted the challenge of writing an accompanying text for a text she fundamentally disagreed with: “John, I don’t know if you expected a somewhat satirical piece – I shall be fair but want to place the cat in his social, political & philosophical context because Labour in the West Indies contains all the germs of his ideas that were later to infect the region.” (20.11.74 SC to JLR and SW, LRA/01/0242/2). She explains her eventually chosen approach:
I had thought about it and whether, however much I disagree with Arthur Lewis, one could ‘introduce’ the pamphlet with a vitriolic critique – yet another on Arthur Lewis. Better, I thought, to place him in his class, generation, world view, and in the international structure of power in which he, Moscos, Prebish, Manley etc fit, so that where they were coming from, and the context in which the labour movement rebelled become comprehensible to the reader of the pamphlet. (SC to JLR, 12.2.76, NBB/1/15)
 
This is a particularly strong example of New Beacon’s attention to producing fitting paratextual apparatus for reprinted material, as seen in La Rose’s response to Craig’s essay:
I find the work which went into the writing of it stupendous. It’s one weakness is our general weakness. The style could be more combative. […] There is no point in going along the road of the hermetic unevocative prose of the various leftist groups but a more combative prose incorporating elements of the demotic in flow and rhythm is the opening that is necessary I believe. (30.11.75 JLR to SC, LRA/01/0242/3)
 
La Rose’s carefully introduces his own attention to the demands of style and expression in non-fiction prose.
 
 

Reception

 
The book appeared in February 1978 in a relatively large print-run of 5000 copies. It was thought to have potential because of the scarcity of accounts of this recent period in the history in the West Indies, though early sales were described as “steady but not spectacular” (SW to SC, 31.7.79, LRA/01/0242/2).
 
Letter from Sarah White to Susan Craig, dated 31 July 1979. Archive Ref: GB2904 LRA/01/0242/2
 
A launch event was held at the New Beacon bookshop attended by over fifty people. Andrew Salkey wrote in praise:
Received pride-making copy of Labour in the West Indies, and very happy to have it, yes!
Congratulations on yet another NBB acclaimed reprint! I’ve read Susan’s Afterword, and it is as penetrating and critically cogent as I expected it to be. That’s a sister and a half, eh?” (AS to SW and JLR, 21.2.78, LRA/01/0698/1 Pt2)
 
The book was an important example of New Beacon’s non-fiction publishing work, which was thoughtfully pitched and framed in terms of contemporary debates. Such work was part of establishing a sense of historical linkage which La Rose thought crucial to strengthening notions of Caribbean identity and to the pursuit of radical political goals in the region. As one reader wrote:
Too soon, too soon, layer upon layer of our experience gets lost and forgotten [...] not in any absolute sense, but in the critical sense of leaving us without an operative grasp of our historical continuity. How hungrily I encounter the words of people just like us (now appearing in republications, certainly here and in N. America.) (‘Gary from Antigua’ to JLR 3.4.78)