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40Th anniversary of 1981 bills- final installment:

Significance of power of people

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For the last eight weeks or so, we have been devoting this space to cover what has been one of the most significant political and social developments in St Vincent and the Grenadines over the last half of a century. It was a titanic struggle, entirely led by the working people and their organisations, against the attempt of the labour party government in 1981 to pass very repressive legislation.

Unfortunately, even many of my generation who experienced those developments, seem to have forgotten about them or their significance, while there are not many persons of the age of forty or less who are even aware of the 1981 happenings, much more to show an interest in them. For these reasons it is vital that such struggles are not erased from the pages of our history but are recounted for us to learn from them.

History is not just a series of disjointed facts to be memorised if convenient, recalling who did what. There are objective conditions which give rise to certain developments and influence the actions taken at a particular time. That was the situation with the 1981 Bills.

The Bills themselves represented the response of an increasingly arrogant administration to calls for higher wages, better working and living conditions. Existing trade union legislation did not facilitate unionisation of workers or collective bargaining, so unions had no choice but to take action. The reaction was the most repressive pieces of legislation ever put before Parliament in an independent St Vincent and the Grenadines.

Now, normally, it is in Parliament that battles against proposed legislation are fought, and it is the Parliamentary Opposition which leads the fight, mobilising its supporters to support its fight. But 1981 was different, for not only was there no strong Opposition in Parliament, but the major parties showed little interest in what was a class matter.

The significance of the battle then was that it was not led by Parliamentary Opposition but, essentially, was a battle for, of and by the working people, skilfully mobilizing allies in the process. The formation of the National Committee in Defence of Democracy (NCDD) which led the struggle, was itself a triumph for coalition building, winning allies among the middle class and even among the clergy.

In this it drew upon the pre-independence experience of the National Independence Committee which had put up a spirited fight for a democratic and relevant independence constitution. This and the militant support from the United Peoples Movement (UPM) proved to be major factors in the mobilisation against the Bills and in curbing the excesses of those in power.

So successful was the mass mobilisation that while the Bills were not formally withdrawn, the legislative process itself ensured that they were relegated to the dustbin of history, with no government since then daring to move in that direction. It was certainly the most significant victory for our working people, and its importance could be seen in the same people again drawing on that experience in 2000 to set up the Organisation in Defence of Democracy (ODD) which not only mobilised against an unpopular government, but succeeded in curtailing its term of office.

The NCDD and the 1981 Bills made this possible, and we must never forget.

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