To such a sudden flood of mutiny.
They that have done this deed are honourable”
Mark Anthony – Julius Caesar – Shakespeare
This history of civil protest in the world can always be simplified into something that many politicians would prefer not to think of. One underlying condition that most who protest share has to do with unemployment and bitter poverty among people who desire to be part of the middle class, and who are keenly aware of the sharp inequality between themselves and their country’s elite; regardless of whether this translates into the way they are treated by the system, or their inability to function within it.
Let us bring this home. In 1937, for the first time in this country’s history, there was widespread civil unrest. According to records, angry crowds smashed store windows along Broad Street, damaged vehicles or stole them, overturned them or pushed them into the sea. They hijacked public buses and crashed them, broke street lamps, vandalized the Empire Theatre, the Bethel Methodist Church and many other buildings. Stores were looted and rioters attempted to burn them down. The police and the British navy were called in and they eventually opened fire on the demonstrators.
A Commission was set up at Queen’s Park to understand the reason for the disturbance. After holding 31 meetings and interviewing 135 witnesses, the Commission concluded that the immediate cause of the disturbances could be found in “the activities of and the circumstances surrounding the trial and deportation of a man named Clement Payne.” Grantley Adams, an island scholar and attorney who gained national prominence after his testimony at the Commission, argued that the main cause of the riots was economic distress.
The following year on March 31st, Adams went on to form the Barbados Progressive League, (this became the Barbados Labour Party in 1944). The party was the organization vehicle for the political movement brought on by the riots, seeking better workers’ rights and social conditions for the citizens. Mr Adams was President of the Barbados Worker’s Union from 1941- 1954, thus, he had their full support until a fracture in 1958.
The second time in Barbados’ history there was wide scale protest in the country was in 1991 when Leroy Trotman (now Sir Roy) led thousands of private and public sector employees through the streets of Bridgetown to protest against the austerity measures implemented by the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) administration led by Erskine Sandiford (now Sir Lloyd). These protests did not change the track of the austerity measures implemented but it sent a message to the administration that the action being taken was not going down well. No matter the circumstance, there had to be a more humane method to solve the country’s problems.
Our third round of protest, in July 2017, a reported 20,000 plus citizens took to the streets of the capital in a march against Prime Minister Freundel Stuart’s DLP administration’s austerity measures. Again, the labour unions led the protest joined by members of the Opposition. Maybe, it was the other way around.
Chanting “Solidarity for the Social Partnership”, citizens from every sector, including banking and finance, construction, retail and the services sector, turned out with placards demanding an ease from the burdensome National Social Responsibility Levy (NSRL) and other tax measures that took effect from July 1, just sixteen days earlier. National Union of Public Workers President Akanni McDowall, Barbados Workers’ Union General Secretary Toni Moore, Barbados Union of Teachers President Pedro Shepherd and Barbados Private Sector Association Chairman Charles Herbert and the current Prime Minister led the march.
The last six months have delivered a steady stream of ‘necessary’ pain according to the pundits. The right-sizing of the public sector and the rationalization of state-owned entities as part of a formula to deliver economic nirvana have shaken even the hardiest amongst us. This is only the beginning. Things will get worse before they get better, and people, all people, need to survive during that period between worse and better.
The challenge for the country, of course, will always be those persons who have no influence, who have no powerful friends, who have no means to move up the social ladder but by following the rules. We might think in terms of wealth, which includes physical assets and income. Income however, is the important factor, and being able to work is a potent part of the conversation. What do vendors do when they cannot sell their wares? What do reporters do when they cannot report? Where does the income come from to sustain life? This has always been the domain of the workers’ unions; at least that I have known until recently.
This period of austerity, without question in our social history, is the weakest surrender of our once formidable unions, which, as history shows, normally would have taken on the politicians on behalf of the proletariat. These are not normal times. It appears now, given that the unions were complicit in the protest of July 2017 and locked arms in solidarity with the current Government, they have surrendered their voice, effectively surrendering the people’s voice, for as there is no opposition who can speak on behalf of the workers, with any authority? Despite protestations to the contrary from some union leaders, the evidence of emasculation is there for all to see. Since we can no longer depend on action from the unions, what are the options?
Further, what does this say about the current economic reality of our beloved country and how much more inequity do we need to see before the nation’s poorest, which is the vast majority, really revolt?
Aristotle was the first to state that inequality triggers revolution and that was certainly the case during the French Revolution when onerous taxes on the lower and middle classes enhanced the lives of the wealthiest aristocrats. The American Revolution was also about unfairness. Remember the rallying cry: “no taxation without representation”? That was in response to Americans being taxed for the gain of British.
The key to this not happening here and now has always been our belief in upward mobility. As long as average Barbadians feel they can better their lives and rise up the social and economic ladder, they will work within the system. But, more and more, we are seeing this possibility fading.
Fortunately, we are an aspirational society, and even the poorest among us continue to dream of climbing to the next rung. As long as the power of hope remains that anyone can better their life and grab the dream, the status quo will be intact. But, how much longer is there going to be enough of the pie for a growing segment of the middle to lower classes to get a share?
George Connolly is a Finance and Technology professional.