January 21, 2018

‘The Father of Trade Unionism’

Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow

Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow [often referred to as the “Father of Trade Unionism”] was born in Georgetown on December 18, 1884. His father, James Nathaniel Critchlow, had emigrated from Barbados and was employed as a wharf foreman by the Booker Group of Companies, while his mother Julia Elizabeth Critchlow, née Daniels, was originally from the Essequibo coast.

Young Hubert Critchlow attended the Bedford Wesleyan Primary School, but left when he was 13 years old, after his father died. He had reached up to Standard 4 (equivalent to Grade 6 in [today’s] schools), but he felt that he had to find a job to help maintain his home.

While attending school, Critchlow excelled in sports and continued to do so as a young man. He soon became a popular sports figure, and during the period 1905-1914 he was the country’s middle-distance athletic champion. He was also a good footballer and cricketer.

Soon after Critchlow left school, he worked as an apprentice at the Demerara Foundry, and at the turn of the century, he obtained employment as a dock labourer on the waterfront. Due to his active representation of his fellow workers during the 1905 strike in Georgetown, his popularity grew. He continued to champion workers’ rights, and was always called upon to represent their case to employers in the years that followed.

During the strikes in 1917, he represented the interest of waterfront workers in collective bargaining, and by then was regarded as the leader of all waterfront workers. He became even more popular when he helped to secure increase wages for them.

Statue of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow on the lawns of the Parliament Building (Photo by Amanda Richards)

In the period of 1917-18, Critchlow led a petition for an 8-hour day. He was pressured by the Chamber of Commerce to withdraw his name from the petition, after all the other petitioners were forced to do so, but he obstinately refused. He was immediately fired from his job and blacklisted from obtaining employment, and he had to depend on assistance from close friends for sustenance.

Being unemployed, he devoted all his time to the campaign for the 8-hour work day. In December 1918, he and a small delegation of workers met with the Governor, Sir Wilfred Colet. It was after this meeting that Critchlow developed the idea of forming a trade union, and he immediately began making the arrangements for its formation. The union, the British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU), was eventually established on January 11, 1919. The union experienced numerous problems on its establishment. The employers saw it as a force aimed at fomenting industrial unrest, and issued open threats to workers who were union members. Despite this, membership grew and by the end of its first year, it had more than 7,000 financial members comprising waterfront workers, tradesmen, sea defence and road workers, railroad workers, balata bleeders and miners, some Government employees and hundreds of sugar estate labourers. Branches of the union were also set up in various parts of the country.

Critchlow was employed on a full-time basis by the union, and he never stopped being a spokesman for the workers, and publicised their grievances and demanded improved working conditions and better wages for them. But he faced opposition from the more educated members of the union who felt that his limited education should not allow him to have such high responsibilities. These members, who were in the minority, wanted a doctor or a lawyer to lead the union.  In January 1920, at a meeting of the union, a motion was introduced requesting Critchlow to hand over all the union’s funds to Dr. T. T. Nichols, and two lawyers, J. S. Johnson and McClean Ogle.

But the motion was rejected by a huge majority and a vote of confidence in Critchlow was passed.  Today, a statue of Critchlow stands on the lawns of the Parliament Building. (Information from “The Guyana Story – From Earliest Times to Independence” by Dr. Odeen Ishmael)