Towards the end of the 1930s, there was evidence that a new consciousness was developing within the society. In 1937, expressions of discontent issued from the vocal elements of the community were focused in the urban areas. Citizens associations multiplied in number and activity, and began to display considerable interest in political affairs. A vigorous campaign was waged against racism and the policy of giving preference to white expatriates in key positions, which could have been filled by qualified Jamaicans.

Groups such as the National Reform Association (NRA) fought against political disabilities and demanded constitutional change, which would allow the native population to play a more effective role governance. The Chamber of Commerce was active in protesting high Customs duties, and resisted the imposition of further taxation or other measures which could hamper the progress of the business sector. The year also saw an increase in public meetings, and resolutions were passed urging the colonial government to seek to improve the economic conditions.

Letters published in the daily newspapers asserted that the middle class had been reduced to a state of “decent pauperism”, as they were unable to maintain the standard of living associated with the class. The working class used other channels. Through the years, there were several strikes and demonstrations to draw attention to the plight of the masses. Each month brought a new wave of unrest from various parts of the island. The idea of trade unionism had not yet gained the notice or support of the working class, and the few unions existing were weak and ineffective.

Hunger marches were a popular way of expressing discontent. Even the Ex-Servicemen of the British west India Regiment who had returned home after the Great War of 1914-18 had joined the ranks of the unemployed. Since his return to Jamaica in the early 1930s as a businessman, William Alexander Bustamante, the future national hero, founder of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), had developed an intimate relationship with the Jamaican masses.

He soon became well known as a public speaker, with the interest of the working population at heart. Recognising his strength and forcefulness, individual groups asked him to lead deputations to the Governor at King ’s House on their behalf. During 1937, he spoke from the platform of the Jamaica Tradesmen and Workers Union and the Social Reconstruction League. His message was consistent – the plight of the people must be addressed.

He wrote frequently to the editorial pages of the daily newspapers and spared no verbs or adjective sin advocating social reform. He dispatched cable after cable to the Secretary of State for the Colonial, urging that he pay attention, through the Colonial Office, to the grave conditions of the poor. In February 1938, Bustamante tried a new tactic. He penned a letter to the Leader of the Opposition in the British House of Commons, as he felt that the Secretary of State’s knowledge of the conditions was too scanty for anyone to size up the situation, In his letter to Major Atlee he wrote:

“We are surrounded with misery, poverty and sickness through low wages and unemployment, and these ills have been increasing for a number of years. Nevertheless with the existing callous government matters have gone from bad to worse”.

A week later Bustamante wrote to another member of the House of Commons, describing the restiveness of the people:

“Thousands upon thousands of able-bodied men willing to work overrun the towns and districts hungry and ragged from the want of employment,” he warned.

April 13, 1938

On April 13, 1938, a local newspaper carried dramatic headlines about the conditions raised in the letter and questions raised in the (British) Parliament about the conditions. By April, the focus was on the construction of a central sugar factory at Frome, Westmoreland, where a violent strike took place on April 20. Workers stormed the pay office because there had been delay in the distribution of pay envelopes. The next day, they refused to resume work unless they were paid the four shillings (“dollar”) a day they claimed had been promised by the company. Pandemonium reigned. The police arrived and things calmed down sufficiently for a deputation to confer with the manager.

The manager announced pay increases of three pence and six pence, but this was refused. The workers held secret meetings and discussed their next move. At 6 a.m. on Monday, May 3, they began to assemble. A spokesman for the group warned management that, “There is no maybe about it; we will have to get a dollar a day”. Additional police reinforcements arrived and closed in on the crowd, who retaliated with sticks and stones. The police responded with shots and bayonets. In the melee four workers were killed, nine were seriously injured and 89 were arrested.

When news of the fatal shootings reached Bustamante in Kingston, within 15 minutes he was on his way to Frome. He arrived there at dawn and immediately went in search of the manager. He asked that the records of the estate be shown to him. After studying them, Bustamante concluded that the workers demand was justified. He spoke to the workers and they agreed to leave the matter in his hands.

Bustamante immediately resumed negotiations with the management, and the strike was soon settled. Back in Kingston, the events at Frome had stirred excitement. Bustamante addressed a meeting of some 7,000 workers in Kingston on the Frome issue, the following evening.

He vowed to continue “the fight for the cause of the poor struggling masses of Jamaica”. He warned that trouble would spread from “Negril to Morant Point” if something was not done “to help the poor and distressed”.

It was at a meeting later that week at Race Course (National Heroes Park) that Bustamante first hinted that he would be arrested.

“They need not send a dozen policemen to arrest me. One woman police will do. But, when I come out, I will make history for Jamaica. I will suffer, I know, but my action will break the neck of the cowardice in Jamaica. I will go on, I will go on, I will go on agitating, until Governor Denham goes, or until raggedness and starvation are no more in Jamaica”.

Almost very night mass meetings were held at various points in the city, and Bustamante was invited to speak. In the meantime, the employers had labeled him the “dollar a day dictator”. Reports in overseas newspapers reported that the workers were being stirred up by “subversive elements ”.

May 9, 1938

On May 9, port workers refused to loan a vessel, the MV Costa Rica because it carried workers from Curacao to put 200 tons of cargo on the wharf. The port workers also complained that they were not being paid for their lunch hour and demanded a settlement. Bustamante intervened and an agreement was reached.

Ice vendors, curio vendors, street cleaners, casual workers and the unemployed were turning to Bustamante for help. He listened to their grievances, which he faithful Secretary, Gladys Longbridge (later Lady Bustamante), recorded the information.

That week the Legislative council announced a programme of public works to stem the tide of unemployment. Additional funds were to be spent on the development of Trench Pen (Trench Town), but when the workers went there nothing was happening.

The Colonial Secretary apologised for the error and informed them that work was due to start at the May Pen Cemetery on Spanish Town Road. The workers walked to the cemetery, but there was no work going on there either. That same day Bustamante spoke to a large crowd of discontented work seekers at North Parade. He denounced the Governor and the contractors and criticized the members of the legislature for doing nothing for the masses.

Two days later more trouble erupted at Trench Pen when the contractors tried to employ 60 men from a large crowd of hundreds of unemployed men.

The crowd was becoming disorderly when Bustamante appeared and brought order to the scene. He promised them that he would meet with the Mayor to seek more employment for them.

He was summoned instead to the waterfront, where the port workers were threatening to take action again. From the waterfront, he went to Parade where he was due to speak to a meeting of the Social Reconstruction League. After being given a rousing welcome, Bustamante spoke to them on the unity to maintain unity.

May 19, 1938

On May 19, some 200 stevedores employed to United Fruit Company went on strike. Ships left the port empty and some had to be diverted to other ports, like Port Antonio, to load bananas.

Bustamante, who was by now acknowledged as the leader of the working class, walked through the crowd to deafening cheers. He spoke to the management, who insisted that no increase would be offered until there was a resumption of work. Bustamante communicated their position to the workers, but demanded that the workers stand their ground.

A meeting was held the following day, but Bustamante insisted that the workers stick it out. “Your children want shoes as theirs. Your women want shoes as theirs, too, and even the police who cannot speak for themselves want better wages,” Bustamante told them.

By the morning of May 23, the entire city of Kingston was in the hands of the workers, who moved from place to place, pulling out those who were still at work to join the throng as it surged through the streets of the city. Tramcars were abandoned. Traffic was halted. Roads were blocked. This time the police were unprepared. The massed had a good head start before the police could bring in additional reinforcements.

The police took Bustamante and St. William Grant to the station, but had to release them shortly after. The Riot Act was read and jeeps loaded with Sherwood Forresters and regular local troops moved into the heart of city to quell the disturbance.

The crowd moved to Queen Victoria”s statue at Parade, as the military moved in, Bustamante in a dramatic gesture bared his chest and declared, “Shoot me, if you want, but spare the poor, defenceless people”. The police drew nearer. Bustamante called on the crowd to sing the British anthem, “God Save the King”. As the strains of the anthem rose, the police were forced to stop and stand in attention. Bustamante then moved away with the large crowd following him.

Throughout the day, more special constables were being recruited and sworn into the police force. As the crowd scattered through the streets, bottles, stones, bricks rained from their ranks. The police and military answered with bullets and bayonets.

The city crawled with soldiers. The crowd scattered and sought cover. Innocent persons looking out from their windows or from behind zinc fences were shot, as the security forces fought to regain control of the situation. Eventually the power of the uniformed men with their guns and bayonets prevailed, and the city fell quiet, again. But, it was not over. The violence and intimidation would continue for several weeks and Bustamante and St. Williams Grant would be arrested and detained at the General Penitentiary the following day, from May 24 to May 29.

May 23, 1938

It was in the midst of this labour crisis, on May 23, 1938, that the BITU was born, as creature of the struggle for better pay and working conditions for the Jamaican workers.

A new Trade Union Law followed in December 1938, and the colonial government was forced to recognize the existence of the movement.

December 1938

In December, 1938 Jamaica’s first Minimum, Wage Law came into effect, as well as provisions for Holiday with Pay, regulations for working hours and many other benefit for the workers.

The Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) today proudly recall its birth amidst the workers struggle of 1938, the outstanding leadership of the late National Hero, the Rt. Excellent Sir William Alexander Bustamante, and the unity and resilience of the workers.