Labour Struggles 1936-1946: Lessons for the Future
— Sadasivam Reddi
The decade 1936-1946 is a crucial period in the struggle of workers to improve their conditions of work and living so as to rescue their dignity as human beings. This struggle was multi-faceted and every opportunity was explored to advance the cause of the working classes. It was a period of experimentation; some of the efforts were successful and others failed. Workers and their leaders learnt the hard way and the ingredients of these struggles provide us with an enriching experience from which we can draw lessons for the future.
1936 marks the foundation of the Mauritius Labour Party (MLP) by Dr Maurice Cure and 1946, the Ferney Strike and the death of Emmanuel Anquetil. The years between these two historic events provide the crucible in which the working classes was moulded. It was a period of great drama and vicissitudes when the working classes confronted the plantocracy and the colonial state.
The foundation of the MLP marks a turning point in the history of labour as the MLP was founded specifically to advance the cause of the working classes in the wake of the Great Depression. The close connection between the MLP and the labouring classes meant that it was the MLP which drafted and charted a roadmap for working class emancipation, with two main objectives: the representation of the working classes in the Council of Government and the establishment of trade unions in Mauritius.
This was a demand which was long overdue in Mauritius as the Imperial Government had been pressing colonial governments since the 1930s to legislate for the setting up of trade unions. The innate conservatism of the plantocracy, coupled with the short-mindedness of the Governor, meant that the circular note of Lord Passfield advising the setting up of trade unions in the colonies was ignored in Mauritius despite the repeated demands of Dr Cure.
Consequently the political meetings of the MLP from 1936 to 1937 were to have a major impact on the working classes. The Hooper Commission confirmed that the ‘propaganda’ of the MLP and Dr Cure contributed to the labour unrest of 1937 though neither the MLP nor Dr Cure had any direct role in the outbreak of strikes in 1937.
In Flacq, the march of the labourers on Union Sugar Estate of Union-Flacq, to the cry of ‘Jai Hind’ and ‘Mar Sala’, distinct from the march of the small planters to Port Louis, was well prepared by the labourers coming from the neighbouring villages and was not a spontaneous outbreak as it is sometimes believed. It was carefully prepared and planned. The mill owners, duly informed by the police, had armed themselves to face the workers and the confrontation ended in a bloodbath during which several workers lost their lives.
The Imperial Government and the colonial state were shocked into action at the turn of events, and in a desperate attempt to save the colonial economy, set up a Commission of Enquiry to address the grievances of the small planters and the labouring classes. One major result of the Commission was the Industrial Ordinance of 1938, which legalised the formation of some kind of trade unions under the strict control of the Department of Labour.
Neither the colonial state nor the plantocracy was in favour of the free trade unions and the right to strike. They feared that giving the right to strike without hedging it with a number of conditions was too risky for the colonial economy, for a single strike in either sugarcane fields, the mills or in transportation and the docks would be sufficient to bring about the collapse of the sugar economy given that the whole economy rested on sugar exports.
To pre-empt any threat to the colonial economy, the Industrial Association Ordinance was framed in such a way that workers would not have the least possibility to strike after going through conciliation and arbitration, and in the last resort the Governor had the power to declare the strike illegal. This meant that, inspite of whatever was written on paper, the right to strike was never conceded in practice.
The Industrial Ordinance was denounced by the MLP, Dr Cure and Anquetil, and later by British TUC and several officers of the Colonial Office after the dock strike of 1938 and that of Belle Vue Harel in 1943. Both were spontaneous strikes by workers, in complete disregard of the Industrial Ordinance or of trade union leaders. Anquetil was framed so that Bede Clifford, the Governor, could use him as an example to frighten workers and justify the repressive measures against the dockers while Ramnarain failed to exercise restraint on the workers despite pressure from the Department of Labour.
Whatever the impact of these two events on the evolution of trade unionism, it was the influence of K. Baker, an ex-president of the Fire Brigade Union in UK and the British Trade Union Congress, particularly Creech Jones, the Secretary General of the TUC, which would bring the trade unions along the path of collaboration with the colonial state.
The strike of Ferney in 1946 was the epitome of that collaboration for it was a strike carefully planned by Anquetil, with the support of the trade union adviser, K. Baker, to bring trade unions on the path of moderation in line with the Imperial Government’s philosophy of ‘responsible trade unionism’. The success of the strike of 1946, conducted in an orderly fashion and following the different procedures set out in the law, became the model for collaborative trade unionism in the future.
This was generally the model of trade unionism followed by trade union leaders and the workers thereafter except for a new experiment in radical unionism between 1971-1979. Even then both radical and moderate unions used both strikes and arbitration to pursue their interests.
There are plenty of lessons to learn or to ignore from that crucial decade of trade unionism in our history. All the facets of labour struggles were present in that period, from spontaneous strikes to confront the employers and the colonial state to collaborationist and ‘responsible’ trade unionism. Which of these two fascinating episodes of this period should inspire the working classes in Mauritius in the era of globalisation remains an open question.