Strike that stirred the nation

LAST Friday marked the 54th anniversary of the 1958 general strike, one of the seminal events of the modern Bahamas. On January 13 of that year, hundreds of public and private sector workers walked off their jobs, shutting down New Providence for almost three weeks and forcing some much-needed social and political change. The key labour leaders of the time are no longer with us, but both have left behind a rich legacy in the form of their personal memoirs. Those leaders were Sir Clifford Darling, who died last month at the age of 89, and Sir Randol Fawkes, who died in 2000 at the age of 76. Sir Randol's 1977 book, The Faith that Moved the Mountain, gives his personal (and what historian Michael Craton described as "somewhat self-serving") perspective as a leader of the Bahamas Federation of Labour, the umbrella union which called the strike. A memorial edition is available online at http://sirrandolfawkes.com. Sir Clifford's 2002 book, A Bahamian Life Story, provides much of the background necessary to form an appreciation of this unique event. In addition to his personal perspective as leader of the Taxi Cab Union, which instigated the strike, his account includes secret communiques written by the colonial authorities, as well as contemporary newspaper reports. The story begins in 1955 when Sir Randol, a young lawyer, returned from a brief self-imposed exile in New York to become a union organizer, eventually establishing the Bahamas Federation of Labour. He was elected to the House of Assembly the following year - along with another young lawyer named Lynden Pindling - as one of the first six PLP parliamentarians. The PLP had been formed only three years earlier and it was the first party to win parliamentary seats, which led to large demonstrations of support when the legislature opened following the election. According to a contemporary article in the London Daily Mail, the 1956 election marked "the first time the coloured people (of the Bahamas) have ever started putting up a fight for their rights." In an interview shortly before his death, Sir Randol said the Bahamian progressive movement was fully united in the mid-50s. "(Pindling) took care of the political arm and I took care of the labour arm - bread and butter economics. So LO became leader of the PLP and I became leader of the labour movement." By 1958, the classic battle lines were drawn between an unyielding authoritarian regime controlled by a monopolistic business elite (who happened to be white), and a majority of deprived citizens who yearned for democracy and social change (who happened to be black). Fifty years ago, the Bahamas had just begun its development as a tourist playground and offshore financial centre. In fact, only a few years before, the colony had been on the verge of bankruptcy with little prospect of economic advancement. But air travel was making a big difference, and the government began spending heavily on tourist promotion. In 1957, a new international airport opened at the wartime Windsor Field air base, and about 194,000 tourists arrived, many staying at the dozen or so hotels that had sprung up in lil' ole Nassau. Airlift was pretty good back then. BOAC flew in from Jamaica, Bermuda, New York, Miami and Havana. Pan Am linked Nassau with New York and Miami, while Mackey Airlines serviced other Florida cities and Air Canada's predecessor ran flights from Montreal, Toronto, Tampa and Jamaica. A bevy of tour companies had set up shop to service the visitors these airlines brought in. They included Philip Brown Tours, Howard Johnson Tours, Playtours, Nassau Tours, Bahama Holidays and Dan Knowles Tours. And the country's proto Ministry of Tourism - known as the Development Board - realised it was sitting on a gold mine. But things were not as calm as they seemed on the surface. The British governor at the time described the ruling elite (which later constituted itself as the United Bahamian Party) as "recalcitrant, stubborn and politically obtuse...not very numerous, but extremely powerful in the material sense and pretty unscrupulous." They maintained their control over the electorate by bribery, intimidation and restriction of the franchise. Women could not vote, but property owners - many of whom were white - certainly could. As another London newspaper account quoted in Sir Clifford's book put it: "The American-tourist dominated Bahamian islands represent the most Gilbertian picture in the empire...The trouble is the absence of any genuine democracy...As a consequence, the majority of members are elected by the business community, which uses its political power for its own commercial ends." The PLP often presented the view that the Development Board was little more than a slush fund set up for the personal advantage of those big businessmen who were its members - under the able leadership of a white lawyer/politico named Stafford Sands. And it was this view that coloured the events which led to the general strike. Black Bahamians had been operating taxis since the 1930s, picking up cruise passengers from Prince George Wharf and air passengers from Oakes Field. As tourism began to grow in the 1950s and new hotels came on stream, a conflict developed over how this business would be shared between the white-owned tour companies and the independent taxi drivers who had their own union. The opening of Nassau's international airport in November 1957 was a significant event - but it was accompanied by an even more significant display of greed and political stupidity. A group of major hotels proposed to sign an exclusive agreement with a new taxi company set up by Bobby Symonette, the son of government leader Roland Symonette. "It is a fact," wrote the acting governor at the time, "that the Meter Taxi-Cab firm is owned and directed by a family with considerable Bay Street interests and prominent in politics...This would have almost certainly ended in a monopoly excluding the taxi cab union entirely." The 200 taxi drivers were understandably outraged. So on November 2 and 3 they blocked the airport with their cars, forcing airlines to cancel flights. The blockade was supported by airport workers who were part of the Bahamas Federation of Labour. But according to Sir Clifford, who directed the action as leader of the taxi union, "the blockade had nothing to do with politics or race. It was a share business deal." And, he added, "All of us were ready to go to jail if that's what it took." After police failed to break the blockade, the authorities gave way and a two-month truce was declared to hammer out a long-term settlement. Over 30 drivers were prosecuted for assault and obstruction and given minor sentences by Magistrate Edward St George - an expatriate lawyer who later became the kingpin of Freeport. Although agreement was eventually reached to share the airport business, the talks deadlocked over a single crucial point. The tour companies rejected a call-up system to transport surplus visitors, preferring to use taxis of their own choice. And then they tried to reopen points that had already been agreed. This set the stage for a new confrontation, and the taxi union called on other workers for support. At an overflow meeting on Wulff Road on the evening of Sunday, January 12, 1958, Fawkes wrote that a motion was unanimously carried that the BFL "should call a general strike to aid the taxi union and to dramatize the fight of all Bahamians for greater dignity and self-respect on the jobsite through decent wages and better working conditions". This time the politicians did get involved. Sir Randol records the dramatic start of the strike in his book: "At about 7am January 13, 1958, Brother Pindling and I entered the Emerald Beach Hotel; rested our hands on the right shoulder of Saul Campbell, chief shop steward of the Hotel Workers Union and whispered, 'NOW!' This password re-echoed throughout the length and breadth of New Providence as our comrades performed similar ceremonies in other hotels." Hundreds of hotel and electricity workers, garbage collectors, construction workers, longshoremen, civil servants, airline and restaurant staff walked off their jobs to the slogan "not a sweat". Bay Street shops were boycotted, and within days the hotels closed and the city came to a standstill. The governor called for a warship and British troops arrived from Jamaica to reinforce the 300 policemen, whose loyalty could not be guaranteed. "The power structure just did not see that the strike was something the people were ready for and did not have to be forced into," Sir Clifford wrote. "I believe that everyone, in every sector, had finally had enough and wanted things to change." In Sir Randol's words, "We knew that we were witnessing the birth of a new Bahamian working together with other Bahamians for a new Bahamas." And although Tribune publisher Sir Etienne Dupuch took a characteristically middle of the road approach, he was clear about the real cause: "The tragedy of it is that all this unnatural hatred has been produced by the greed and avarice of a few men in the community." The strikers received moral support from the British Trades Union Congress, the American AFL-CIO and from Jamaican Chief Minister Norman Manley. Demands for a commission of inquiry were rejected by the authorities, but the strike was finally called off on January 30, following the governor's promise to set up a transport authority to resolve the dispute. Despite the lack of an immediate clear-cut victory, the strikers had set the stage for a major shake-up of the colony's social, economic and political relations. According to Fawkes, their action marked "the beginning of the end of British colonialism...white supremacy and racial discrimination." In Sir Clifford's words: "Little did I know on that Sunday morning in January 1958 that the stunning and unexpected aftermath of the general strike would pave the way for the turbulent decade of the sixties, ultimately leading to the freedom of majority rule for all Bahamians." The aftermath he referred to included international pressure on the Bay Street regime to democratise the country. Within three months a senior British cabinet minister was in Nassau pushing for constitutional reforms, and that October, legislation was passed to set up a labour department and a process for industrial conciliation. The following year saw abolition of the company vote, extension of the franchise to all men over 21, and the creation of four new parliamentary seats (all of which were won by the PLP). According to the government's annual report for 1958-59: "The transition from threatened violence and unrest to tranquility and prosperity marks a period which must be regarded as one of the most momentous in the colony's recent history. The effects of the general strike were far-reaching. The tourist industry received a severe set-back and financial loss was heavy. "But these two years are outstanding not so much for the high level of prosperity as for the far-reaching constitutional and legislative changes which were brought about...which the general strike had shown to be vital to the progressive development of the colony." By all accounts, public support for the strike was overwhelming. It is likely that in 1958 a great number of Bahamians would have been prepared to see the challenge through if tempers had flared. In fact, there were several arson attacks and bombings after the strike ended (including the Nassau Guardian plant and areas where British troops were housed), but no violence occurred during the strike itself, and no-one was hurt. The aftermath also featured a split in the ranks of the progressive movement that foreshadowed things to come. As Fawkes put it: "Lurking in the wings were two strangely sinister and divisive forces: the UBP and the top brass of the PLP; the one, terribly afraid of the power I wielded as president of the Bahamas Federation of Labour; the other, envious of the free trade unions' national and international acclaim as the spark-plug of the quiet revolution." The more radical and eccentric Fawkes left the PLP to form the Labour Party, while PLP-inclined unions broke away from Fawkes' BFL to form the Bahamas Trades Union Congress, which still exists today. But the Labour Party had little impact until the historic general election of 1967, when Fawkes - as the party's only parliamentarian - joined with the white representative of Eleuthera, Alvin Braynen, to break a deadlock between the PLP and the UBP, which had each won 18 seats. Braynen became speaker of the House while Fawkes was named minister of labour in a new PLP government. His taste of power was brief, however. After the 1968 election, which produced a landslide win for the PLP, Fawkes was dumped as a minister, but managed to retain his seat in parliament as a labour representative until the 1972 election. And ironically, it was Fawkes who moved the 1970 motion of no confidence in Prime Minister Pindling that precipitated a major split in the PLP and led to the formation of the Free National Movement. Darling was elected on the PLP ticket in 1967 and joined the cabinet two years later, becoming labour minister in 1971. He remained a loyal PLP soldier until his retirement from politics in early 1992, when he was appointed governor-general. He retired from public life altogether three years later. The events of the general strike unfolded before my time, but as a child in the 60s I can recall family members grumbling about the destruction of the country just as it began a climb towards prosperity. What stands out to me most from reading these accounts today is just how innocuous, conservative and legitimate the demands of the strikers were. * What do you think? Send comments to larry@tribunemedia.net or visit www.bahamapundit.com.


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