On Wednesday, May 1, most of the world will be celebrating, honoring the working class, persons who work for wages. This day is set aside by governments, annually, to show appreciation for the indispensable contribution of persons who hire out their time and talents to others.
Work makes the world go around. In the Christian Bible, in the Old Testament, we learned that God worked six days to create the world. In 2 Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul said that a man who doesn’t work shouldn’t eat. The Bahai’s say that work is giving praise to God, that it is worship. The Muslims describe work as a glorious deed.
All of us work. But May 1st is not a day directly set aside to honor fisherfolk and farmers and merchants and other business folk. They all make excellent contributions too, do great work, and so are deserving of special attention. But this particular day, May 1, is to honor the persons who are employed by them, and by government.
When we sell our time and talents to others we are called employees, and those who hire us are called employers. Natively, employers want as much work from their employees as they can get, while paying as little as they have to for it. The situation could be described as adversarial. There are conscientious employers and progressive employers, but there are employers who would extract from workers with little consideration.
People who have wealth, and governments, purchase the time and talents of individuals, and these individuals are expected to provide a certain quantity and quality of service for their pay. The dominant feature in the system is the haves, because they “have” the commodity that all people need, money. It is clear who has the advantage in this system.
Things were bad for workers in Belize in 1919. Belizean soldiers returning from the battlefields in Mesopotamia, the Middle East, were not content when they found that they had to take up the same jobs they left, and at the same meager wages. “The riots of 1919, like those of 1894 and 1934, was a manifestation of working-class anger towards a privileged group which exploited labor…,” said Peter Ashdown in his essay, “The Problem of Creole Historiography” in Readings in Belizean History (Second Edition).
There was major labor unrest in Belize in the 1930s. The world’s economy was depressed after the 1929 Stock Exchange Crash, and Belize had suffered a devastating hurricane in 1931 and, as always, labor took the brunt of the pain. The following is taken from Peter Ashdown’s story, “Antonio Soberanis and the 1934-35 Disturbances in Belize (Part I)”, which was published in Readings in Belizean History (Second Edition):
“On Wednesday 14th February, 1934, an unparalleled demonstration of the unemployed was organized …One of the demonstrators…Antonio Soberanis Gomez…made his maiden speech on March 16th on the Battlefield…On the night of the 13th (April) on the Battlefield…(Tony) declared once again that the rice ration was ‘not even food for dogs’; that the ‘cruising’ police in the assembled crowd ‘were least among the apostles’ and that he wanted no reward for his labors and that neither prison nor fear of death would deter him.”
On this day, May 1, each year, our country must remember to celebrate Tony Soberanis, “the Lahoodie brothers, Gabriel Adderly, James Barnett, James Middleton, Alfred Hall, and Benjamin Reneau”, Clifford Betson, and others. Many of the founding fathers of the PUP, and its early members, were affiliated with unions. On this day, May 1, we must remember to celebrate Nicholas Pollard, David Mckoy, Leigh Richardson, Philip Goldson, and others.
George Price was an employee of the richest person in the country, Robert Sydney Turton, but he was not only conscious of the plight of workers, he was sympathetic. Price had studied for the priesthood and he was well acquainted with the Rerum Novarum, an encyclical from Pope Leo XIII in 1891.
www.socialjustice.catholic.org.au says Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical “was issued at a time of immense social change in Europe, marked by the awakening of democracy, a rise in industrialization and the influence of capitalism, and the popular appeal of communism among working people.
“Pope Leo was concerned about the rise of communism, which claimed to offer workers a socio-economic and political alternative to the alliance between aristocratic privilege and the capital industrial interests. At the same time he saw the excesses of capitalist development and the exploitation and dire poverty of workers.”
In his book, The Life of Robert Sydney Turton, author Leroy Grant mentioned that Price had challenged his boss on his labor practices, but had been severely chastised by the business mogul, for his innocence about business matters.
There have been a number of strikes in Belize, as labor fought to increase its share from the pie and to improve workplace conditions. In “A Brief History of the Trade Union Movement in Belize”, Nicholas Pollard, Jr. (fiwebelize.com), writes about what precipitated the strike of 1952.
He commented, “Two months after Richardson and Goldson were released from Her Majesty’s Prison on Goal Lane in Belize City, they organized and launched the historical strike of October, 1952. While there were riots and demonstrations in 1919 and Soberanis’s in 1935, this was the bravest move by a group of young aspiring nationalists, Leigh Richardson, Philip Goldson, Henry Jex, including Mexican born, Nick Pollard, Sr. …
“The strike was called on October 20th and called off on the 30th. Negotiations went on into November between the Union, the Colonial Government and the Labour Advisory Board. The Union demanded a $1.00 increase per day but the government offered only .22 cents more. The Union’s position was that the cost of living index was $25.90 weekly. At $1.00 per day they were compromising for $19.08 weekly. The Government would offer only $14.40 weekly. Eventually in November, the Union had no choice but to accept the Government’s offer. Over 2,000 workers from the citrus belt in Stann Creek Town marched in support of the strikers in Belize City.”
History.com says that Labor Day “originated during one of American labor history’s most dismal chapters. In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages.
“People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks. As manufacturing increasingly supplanted agriculture as the wellspring of American employment, labor unions, which had first appeared in the late 18th century, grew more prominent and vocal. They began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and compel employers to renegotiate hours and pay.
“Many of these events turned violent during this period. On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history.”
We know that labor, in the earliest days of Belize, had no voice. Those were slavery days, and in those days labor’s wages was in pigtail, salt beef, and flour. Things are still bad for workers in Belize. Indeed, things have never been good for workers here, except for small pockets that have had breakthroughs. But, there have been victories, and the work of the unions has been critical to the survival of the Belize we know.
As we celebrate this “day off”, May 1, all of us should reflect on what it’s about. In particular, we should celebrate the achievements of our own labor unions, for it would be worse for us if those brave unions hadn’t fought for the rights of workers. The nature of the employer/employee relationship is adversarial, but when both parties understand their roles and respect each other, the increase is for all.
Happy Labor Day, Belize!