THE LIFE AND WORK OF HUBERT NATHANIEL CRITCHLOW
The early years of the British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU) were marked by personal rivalries between the professionals and the rank and file members who held leadership positions. In particular, there were personal clashes between A. A. Thorne and Critchlow. Allegations of corruption in the use of union funds also surfaced.
A serious unemployment crisis developed in the early 1920s, following the end of the World War, and there were strikes and riots in Georgetown in 1924. Since similar problems occurred in the British West Indies, a strong solidarity among the trade unions was forged in all the territories. A number of West Indian labour conferences also took place, and the BGLU played a leading role in all of them. During this period, Critchlow served as Secretary-Treasurer of the union; C. T. Andrews was elected President of the union in 1922.
Spearheaded by Critchlow, the union also campaigned vigorously for the reduction of rents in Georgetown. At that time, most workers, particularly those on the waterfront, lived in rented buildings in the city. When a rent reduction was won in 1922, a committee of tenants designated the 3 July 1922 as “Critchlow Day.”
In April 1924, there were many strikes by various categories of workers in demand of a shorter working day and higher wages to combat the rising cost of living. When the employers refused to give in to these demands, riots broke out in various parts of Georgetown, despite appeals by Critchlow for workers to desist from violence. After the police made numerous arrests of both men and women who were charged with inciting and for causing violence, Critchlow advised workers to end the strikes. There was some opposition to this, but in the end his decision was heeded after he declared that he would ask the Governor to intervene in the matter of wages.
Immediately after, Critchlow asked the Governor, Sir Graeme Thompson, to set up an Arbitration Board to examine the wages issue, and to force both the employers and the workers to accept its award. However, since there was no legislation to allow for the establishment of such a Board, the Governor appointed a Commission which included Critchlow as one of the two workers’ representatives. This Commission issued a report on April 24, but it did little to improve the situation.
Meanwhile, sugar workers on the East Bank Demerara also went on strike at the same time of the Georgetown strikes. On the 3 April, they marched towards Georgetown to ask Critchlow to represent them in their struggle for higher wages. However, they were stopped by the police at Ruimveldt, on the south of the city. In the disorder that broke out, the police opened fire and killed 13 persons and injured many others. The strike ended almost immediately and sugar workers returned to their jobs the next day. (See Chapter 100).
Throughout this period, the BGLU expanded its international links. Critchlow represented the union at the British Commonwealth Labour Conference in 1924, 1925 and 1930 in England. The British Caribbean and West Indian Labour Conference was inaugurated in Georgetown in 1926, and Critchlow was a leading representative at this, and at subsequent conferences. (In 1938, he was elected to the position of Assistant Secretary of the Conference).
Based on his experience in the workers’ struggle, Critchlow recognised that the established capitalist system was not bringing benefits to the working class. In December 1930, he addressed members of the union and called for workers to fight against capitalism, as practised by the employers, and to struggle for the establishment of socialism.
In 1931, he travelled to Germany to represent the union at the International Committee of Trade Union Workers Conference. The following year, on an invitation from the trade union movement of the Soviet Union, he visited Russia in 1932. On his return to Guyana, he spoke of the benefits Russian workers were receiving, and immediately, the local press attacked him and called him a “Red, a Communist and a Bolshevik.”
With the formation of unions to represent workers in various areas, the British Guiana Trades’ Union Council (TUC) was established in 1941, and Critchlow became its first General Secretary. By 1943, there were 14 affiliate unions in this umbrella body which, shortly after, joined the World Federation of Trades Unions (WFTU).
In 1948, with the advent of the Cold War, the WFTU was split, and the TUC withdrew from it and joined the pro-West break-away group, the International Confederation of Free Trades Unions (ICFTU). Critchlow represented the TUC at the ICFTU conference in London in 1949, and was elected as a “substitute” member of the Executive Council to represent the West Indian group. Later in the year he attended an International Confederation of Workers meeting in Havana, Cuba.
He also championed demands for the extension of the right to vote so that all workers could participate in national elections. Some leaders of other unions which were also formed by this time, also agitated for this cause. In 1943, he and Ayube Edun, of the Man Power Citizens’ Association (MPCA), which was formed a few years before, were nominated by the Governor to represent workers in the Legislative Council. In the following year, Critchlow was appointed to the Executive Council (the Governor’s Cabinet), and he served in this position until 1947. He also served as the Government’s nominee on the Georgetown City Council from December 1945 to December 1950.
In the 1947 elections, Critchlow contested and won the South Georgetown constituency. But as a result of an election petition, his election was declared null and void, and he was barred from contesting for a seat in the Legislative Council for the five years. It was during these elections that Dr. Cheddi Jagan was first elected to the Legislative Council.
Despite his increased administrative and official Government duties, Critchlow continued to actively represent workers in various parts of the country. He intervened in a bauxite workers’ strike at Mackenzie in 1944, but the workers, most of whom were members of the BGLU, felt that he did not represent them adequately when he agreed to a resumption of work after discussions with the management of the Demerara Bauxite Company.
In 1950, the Government appointed an Advisory Committee to examine cost of living issues and to make recommendations. These included a minimum wage of $1.52 per day, but Critchlow, who was a member of the Committee, issued a minority report calling for a minimum wage of $2.00 per day.
For his outstanding public service, he was awarded the medal of Officer of the British Empire (OBE) by King George VI in 1951. On the following year, he resigned as General Secretary of both the BGLU and the TUC, but he served on the Arbitration Panel that examined the wage dispute for waterfront workers in Grenada. After this period, he was generally not invited to activities organised by the TUC. During the 1957 May Day parade, a contingent of workers led by Dr. Cheddi Jagan saw Critchlow standing by his gate to watch the parade. Dr. Jagan broke ranks and walked over to the gate and took him to march at the head of the parade. Later, at the demands of the workers, he was allowed to address the May Day rally.
While Critchlow served as General Secretary of the TUC, May Day (1 May) was observed annually by unionised workers with marches and rallies. He made regular demands during his annual address to workers for the day to be declared a public holiday, but this was not achieved until 1958.
This outstanding working class leader died on the 10 May 1958 at the age of 74 years. In 1963, at the request of Dr. Jagan, who was then the Premier, the famous Guyanese artist E.R. Burrows sculpted a statue of Critchlow. This statue was later placed on the grounds of Parliament Buildings.