WOMEN FACTORY WORKERS AND TRADE UNIONS:
A JAMAICAN CASE
by A. Lynn Bolles
Assistant Professor of
A paper presented to the Caribbean Studies Association, 6th Annual
Conference, May 1981. St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.
~ ~i~af a~ak.
Since 1938, the organized labor movement in Jamaica has been such an
influential force that it has dictated the course of events in the country's
social and political spheres and,frequently,its economic order. Trade unions,
in conjunction with their political party affiliates, are so dominant in the
Jamaican social system that their influence tends to obscure the fact that
organized labor, in itself, represents a relatively small proportion of the
working population (see Gonsalves 1977). In addition, despite the high
rate of female labor force participation in Jamaica, women have a low level
of trade union membership (personal communications, staff member, trade
union). And, although women in general are active and
numerically strong in the work force, they tend to be under-represented in
trade unions as organizers or staff members. The relatively few women who
are trade unionists most often do not occupy decision-making positions.
The purpose of this paper is two-fold. First, it will examine some
of the factors which have led to the low level of/female rank and file
membership in Jamaica's labor organizations. Second, this discussion will
address the situation of a group of women who are rank and file trade union
members. Data for this example group was collected from 127 working class
women production workers employed in factories located in the Kingston
Metropolitan Area. They are all members of one of three prominent trade
unions--Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), National Workers Union
(NWU), and the Trade Union Congress of Jamaica (TUC).
The guiding theme of this paper takes into consideration the influential
nature of trade unionism in Jamaica and the necessity for women to be
incorporated into the movement on all organizational levels, including
rank and file. At present, there is a newly formed institution in Jamaica
which is dedicated to assisting current female trade unionists in gaining
the tools necessary to assume positions of greater authority and leader-
ship within their organizations. It is essential for those women presently
active in organized labor, to be able to rise above the participatory
level of "donkey work", i.e., secretarial and assistant positions without
real power, etc. Moreover, it is also crucial that women trade unionists
form strong lines of communication between themselves and the rank and file
female membership. This paper hopes to contribute to those objectives,
the Joint Trade Union's Research Development Center
which are designed by/
TRADE UNIONISM AND WOMEN WORKERS
Prior to examining female participation in trade unions, a general,
very brief history of the labor movement in Jamaica must be presented.
Gonsalves (1977) notes the following four phases in the development of the
trade union movement in Jamaica. The first phase begins in 1919.with the
passage of the Trade Union Law, which allowed workers to organize without
being subject to criminal penalties. However, it was not until 1938 (the
end of the first phase) that a law was passed which granted workers the
legal right to engage in peaceful picketing. The right to peaceful protest
was an outcome fo the 1938 riots, as was the establishment of the Royal
commission to investigate the causes for those disturbances. As the laws
and political apparatus of the then Crown Colony of Jamaica changed in
relation to the changing economic structure of the island, the groundwork
for further development of trade unionism was also established.
Here it must be noted that one of the important results of the 1938
riots was that rural and unskilled workers drew attention to their needs
for organized labor activity. This need is satisfied during the third
stage of trade union development--that of growth and expansion. To illustrate,
consider the Jamaica Workers and Labourers Association,formed in 1930
by Marcus Garvey. That organization failed because rural and unskilled
workers were not attuned to the discipline and importance of trade unionism.
When the events of 1938 are taken into account, we can see that the conscious-
ness of workers has been raised to a level sufficient for greater organized
labor activity. Thus, the situation is resolved several years later, when
between 1942 and 1949, union membership included 55 percent of the working
class, represented by eleven organized unions (Gonsalves 1977:93).
Also during this period, political parties were formed as appendages
to particular unions, i.e., BITU and the Jamaica Labour Party (under Alexander
Bustamante), the TUC and the People's National Party (under Norman Manley).
This situation added a new dimension to organized labor in the island--
strong unionism equaled political power. In 1944, Jamaica was granted
universal adult sufferage. In the 1949 elections, the Jamaica Labour Party
won the most seats in parliament, while the People's National Party earned
the majority in popular vote.
In the period from 1950-52, another important episode to this third
stage 'f trade union development occurred. With the
intensification of union rivalry between the BITU and the-TUC, internal
power plays divided the membership of the TUC and its political party--PNP.
The issue came to a head when the TUC leadership of the challenged
The issue came to a head when the TUC leadership of the 4Hs was challenged
by its moderate members over questions of international affiliation--
pro-capitalist, or pro-socialist. Soon after, the 4Hs were expelled from
the PNP, which viewed their progressive (i.e., socialist) ideology as
incompatible to the membership of the party. In 1952, a new trade union,
the National Worker's Union (NWU) led by Michael Manley (Norman's son)
was formed not only to combat its rival union, the BITU, but also to
assist in eliminating the power of the 4Hs. In its first three years
(1952-55) the membership of the NWU was almost equal with that of the TUC.
By 1956, however, the NWU's membership had increased to nearly double that
of the TUC (12,502 to 5,440), and was gaining on that of the BITU, which
had 46,600 members (Gonsalves 1977:96).
This situation brings the fourth and final stage of trade union devel-
opment into focus--1956 to Independence (1962). During that period, the
NWU gained predominance over the TUC on the basis of McCarthyism (anti-
communism) and the PNP's success in the 1956 election. The NWU and the
BITU became the major unions, and the two-party nexus of their political
affiliations was consolidated. Conditions became favorable for unionism
in Jamaica, despite the passage of a law which placed restrictions on strikes
in the "essential services." Gonsalves (1977:97) states that the major
employers had come to realize that it made better business sense to allow
unionization in order to maintain industrial peace, so long as the unions
were "responsible"--BITU and NWU were generally deemed qualified by this
criterion. Additional factors which aided trade unionism included political
party patronage, which was institutionalized via government structure, and
the expansion of the economy through bauxite mining and manufacturing, there-
by creating capitalist relations of production, which generated conditions
for the further growth of an industrial working class. The next question
asks, how were female workers incorporated into this stream of events?
There is little doubt that women were participants in all of the
developmental stages of trade unionism in Jamaica. For example, Aggie
Bernard has been honored by Jamaica as an exemplary citizen for her
activist role in the 1938 uprisings. Miss Edith Nelson, vice president
of the BITU, is another woman who has spent her life working in that
labor organization. However, if one turns to the numerous articles and
books on the history or events of trade unionism in Jamaica, rarely does
one encounter the presence of women as members,or female participation in
movement. Those familiar with the Caribbean will find that situation of
little surprise, based on a multitude of factors which cannot be addressed
in this paper. On the other hand, there is one factor which can be
examined here, which will be beneficial to a general understanding of the
issue of female rank and file membership, that is, the development of
an industrial female working class.
One advantage of the capitalist development of the Jamaican economy,
since the late 1940s, has been that it created the conditions necessary
for the growth of the female industrial working class. Increases in the
number of working class women occurred primarily via the expansion of the
manufacturing sector. There, working class women were employed in a sector
resultant of heavy foreign capital investment, outside of agriculture.
Moreover, a number of trade union officials agree that women's employment
in factory work made it easier for them to locate and organize female
workers. Women factory workers, occupying positions in service, craftmen
or unskilled manual labor categories in 1978 represented 15 percent (15,500)
of the entire female working class. It is important to keep in mind the
fact that a third of the
r .--~ana*nar~ Rb
female labor force were self-employed. Therefore, the female working class
in Jamaica has eluded the organizing tactics of many "blanket"trade unions
by the location of their place of work, i.e., in private homes, as domestic
helpers, and as independent agriculturalists and as higglers. Moreover,
those working class female industrial workers who were organized were found
in labor-intensive,"foot loose" (able to arbitrarily abandon shop with ease),
"screw driver" (concerned with secondary production of semi-finished goods)
firms --owned outright by multinationals or financed by foreign capital,
and dependent on imported ocmponents and raw materials. Accordingly, it was
under those kinds of employment circumstance that the 127 female industrial
employees here were contacted during the research period.
Introductions between researcher and workers were made via trade union
officials and shop delegates. In addition, specific factories were identi-
fied by trade union officers as work locales employing large numbers of
female factory workers. Not surprisingly, most of those factories were food,
tobacco, and garment concerns--all very secondary industries, and very labor
WORKING CLASS FEMALE RANK AND FILE
The following is a brief socioeconomic description of the women workers,
and will serve as background data for the subsequent discussion on trade
union activities. Each of the 127 women workers represents an individual
household,(thus, 127 different households are represented). When categorized
by the marital status of the respondent, 19 households were represented by
legally married women, and 33 households were represented by women in common-
law unions. Fifty-two (52) households were represented by women in visiting
unions (in which the partners involved have separate residences, but visit
each other on a regular basis). And 23 households were headed by respondents
who were the sole supporters of their households. Represented in a composite
group, these included widows, separated married and consensual partners, and
those without current boyfriends. The majority of all these women lived in
households of about 5 persons. For many the primary financial responsibility
for the household fell to the woman worker, depending upon her marital status,
and the household composition. That is, households with more than one wage
earner often had shared obligations. Most of these working class women
(N=92) had only a primary education. More than half of the group were born
and/or raised in rural Jamaica and had migrated to the Kingston Metropolitan
Area as teenagers or young adults.
More than half of the women entered wage labor between the ages of 15
and 19. Twenty-seven percent of these women began full-time work in their
early twenties, while eleven percent entered the work force after the age
of twenty-five. The kinds of job in which they were first employed depended
on location--rural or urban--, and available opportunities. An equal number
of women had either never before worked on a full-time basis (N=60) or had
been previously engaged in full-time jobs (N=60). Some of the types of
previous employment included factory work, domestic service and other kinds
of service work. The average work history for these women at their current
factory job was seven years, with a number having spent over ten years at
the same place of work. Of particular interest is the fact that of the 127,
only 23 were performing a different kind of job than their first position
at their present work place. Most workers had initially found their jobs
through freinds and relatives. The average weekly wage of this group of
women workers was J$68.00 (US$38.42). During the research period, the
median weekly wage for women was J$26.93 and men received J$33.33 (Dept. of
Statistics, Jamaica 1979tx). Clearly, by comparison, the wage these 127
workers received made them monetarily better off than many others in
There are 16 firms included here: 6 multinationals; 3 joint ventures
(local and foreign ownership); 6 local firms and 1 plant owned by the govern-
ment. Eleven of the 16 were located in the industrial parks established
in the 1950s
by the government as a feature in their recruitment incentive package/. All
of these manufacturers were subject to the collective bargaining process,
with trade unions representing workers. The organizing activity of these
unions was not welcomed by all firms involved. In fact, during the research,
the employees of two firms were out on strike for better wages and working
Of the three trade unions mentioned the TUC had the largest representa-
tion in this research; nine firms, eighty-two workers. Second in size was
the NWU; five factories, sixteen workers. And third in the number of enter-
prises represented was the BITU; two firms, twenty-nine workers. Next,
the nature of the relationships between those unions and the female indus-
trial workers-will be explored.
TRADE UNION ACTIVITIES
It has been suggested by a number of workers and observers of the trade
union movement in Jamaica that organizers are not interested in expanding
their female rank-and-file membership. The ethnographer asked officers from
each trade union involved in the study if this was the case. Most of the
officers denied such accusations, and placed the blame of the female workers
themselves. Women were preoccupied with children and making dinner for
the family, so they never attended meetings, one officer answered. According
to the response of the 127 women here, forty percent attended meetings,
with about a quarter of them making a regular appearance. Although many of
the women commented that they did have the tendency to attend meetings only
during a crisis or for an important vote, the same thing could be said for
all other (i.e., male) workers.
One of the projects that all three trade unions had undertaken during
the research period was the presentation of seminars on family life for
their rank and file. The participation in those seminars by women workers
was less than expected. A purpose of the sessions was to teach workers
better ways to budget household expenses, keep a healthy marital relation,
and to maintain a positive frame of mind. These seminars were sponsored
by the International Labor Organization, in conjunction with the Trade Union
Education Institute (TUEI) of the University of the West Indies, Mona. Of
all the women sampled, only sixteen percent had ever attended a seminar.
Reasons for the low participation rate for female workers were two-fold.
One reasons was based on the lack of funds of trade unions to have more
seminars to reach a larger group of workers, and, secondly, because seminars
wereheld on Saturdays (a prime housework day) many women could not attend.
Another kind of seminar offered to delegates (shop stewards) was a month-
long, daily workshop sponsored by the TUEI. There, delegates were taught
the finer points of trade unionism, bargaining strategies and economics.
Delegates from all over the island were selected by their trade unions to
attend this workshop. Those workers from outside Kingston were boarded at
the TUEI guest rooms. All worker participants received their full pay while
they took part in these sessions. An exam was given after the course, and
there was a ceremony for graduates. During the research period, one woman
delegate participating in this study graduated from the TUEI workshop.
Of the sixteen firms, eleven had women as delegates to the trade union.
Most firms had both male and female delegates, each representing the workers
along sex and job lines. There were no differences in the sex of the shop
delegate according to whether the plant was owned by a local concern, MNC or
joint venture. Since positions in factories are segretated by sex, the
female delegate represented only women, but also a certain work process.
For example, in a paper factory, only women were operators, thus the woman
delegate was an operator. When asked if a man could adequately represent
the needs of female workers, only eleven percent of the entire group (N=14)
replied that he could not. Twenty-nine women stated that a man could
represent a women, 23 said "it depends", and 24 suggested that there should
be a man and a woman as delegates. The following describes some of the
issues which were most important for these women factory workers.
There one testament to the help that the trade unions had provided these
workers--better pay. Over half (N=66) of the women indicated that a "pay
raise" was the most significant thing the trade union had done form them.
Second in importance for these women was better working conditions. Twenty-
two percent (N=28) attributed their better working conditions to the efforts
of the trade union. Following as a distant third were fringe benefits.
Only eleven percent (N=14) cited medical, insurance and other benefits as
a special credit to their labor organization. Four women could not decide
in what area the trade union had helped the most, so they replied "everything".
Also, four women listed "nothing in particular' as their answer--neutral.
An attempt was made to ascertain in what areas the trade union could
perform better. In response, forty percent (N=52) again referred to "better
pay". Once more, as a second concern, twenty two percent (N=28) referred to
better working conditions, while fifteen percent (N=19) sought more fringe
Three additional areas were suggested which trade union could take part
in, and these related to the economic conditions in Jamaica at the time.
Eleven percent (N=14) of the women were concerned with job security. Of
the fourteen, 9 were garment workers, eight of whom were laid off at the
time the question was asked. Three women thought that the trade union
should be active in creating jobs. And, four women sought help from the
trade union in transportation problems. Transport to and from work was
posing a problem for a number of women workers because the bus system was
rapidly deteriorating due to the lack of spare parts available, etc., which
was in turn due to the national financial crisis. Trade unions could
serve as pressure groups to speed the resolution of the bus transportation
In essence, these women had had the most praise for their trade unions
on three issues--pay, working conditions and fringe benefits. However,
those same issues were the ones for which the women wanted to see even
more assistance from their trade unions as provisos in contracts. How these
labor organizations attempted to satisfy their rank-and-file membership was
also an issue, and whether or not the efforts of the organizations were
viewed as sufficient by these members depended on personalities and conflicts
between parties involved.
For example, there appeared to be a very strong feeling of confidence in
the union officer who initially organize the work place by the rank and file.
When individual organizers handed over shops to the charge of others, workers
felt betrayed. Thus, numerous accounts existed to the effect that "when
Mr. So and So took care of the union here, things were different."
Because politics and labor organizations in Jamaica are profoundly
linked, organizers do pay attention to workers' demands. Since these
women were members of trade union, they expected these organization to work
for their benefit. However, the level of response from organizers was
constrained for a number of reasons. First, since most organizers were men,
their general tendency was to denigrate the participation of women as
responsible rank-and-file members. Often this took place subconsciously,
as organizers had the best intentions for all workers rights in their
foremost thoughts. Organizers made various excuses for the lack of women
members, and ascertaining the seriousness of the problem was complicated
by membership lists which did not identify members by sex. Furthermore,
organizers had not made a concentrated effort to question the fact that
certain jobs were categorized as male and other as female, with correspon-
dingly unequal pay scales.
Secondly, on the other hand trade unions were at a disadvantage
similar to that of their counterparts in the U.S. Northeast. When produc-
tion ceases, when bankruptcy occurs, or relocation eliminates employment
(union shops), what can organized labor do in response, beside negotiate
severance pay? This situation occurs most often during phases of high
unemployment, which show no sign. of curbing as a labor force trend. In
Jamaica, the working class female industrial labor force was at a great
disadvantage, given their high concentration in "footloose" shops.
1. Fieldwork research was conducted over an eighteen month period--1978-79--
in Kingston, Jamaica. Sponsored by an Inter-American Foundation pre-
doctorate fellowship and NIMH #1F31MH 07990-01 research award. I am
indebted to all those involved in the research endeavor, especially the
127 women factory workers and their households.
2. In 1976, there were 43 registered trade unions in Jamaica and 9 employer
associations. These numbers include blanket unions, farmers, profes-
sional and craft organizations. This paper specifically does not address
the state of women in professional or craft collective bargaining groups,
such as the Jamaica Teachers Association.
3. The 4Hs--trade unionists and political activists--were Richard Hart,
Ken Hill, Frank Hill and Arthur Henry. In 1942, the colonial state
charged the 4Hs with "dissemination of extreme revolutionary doctrines."
The charge exaggerated the political education work that Ken Hill and
his fellow progressives began in the TUC and PNP (see Munroe 1977).
4. Exchange rate uses J$1.00 = US$1.77.
5. "A trade union is defined as a continuous association made up of
primarily wage earners who use collective labour power mainly to improve
their wages and working conditions." (Gonsalves 1977:89.)
6. The exact number of women trade union members cannot be given because
the membership lists of individual organizations usually do not
designate sex, and ofteA initials are utilized which further disguises
the sex of a member.
BOLLES, A. Lynn (1981) The Impact of Working Class Women's Employment on
Household Organization in Kingston, Jamaica. Ph.D. dissertation in
Anthropology, Rutgers University.
GONSALVES, Ralph (1.977) "The Trade Union Movement in Jamaica:
and Some Resultant Proglems," Essays on Power and Cange in
edited by Stone and Brown, pp. 89-105. Kingston Jamaica:
JAMAICA, THE GOVERNMENT. DEPARTMENT OF STATISTICS (1979) Statistical
MUNROE, Trevor (1977) The Marxist 'Left' in Jamiaca 1940-1950. Working
Paper No. 15, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University
of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica.
PHELPS, O.W. (1960) "Rise of the Labour Movement in Jamaica," Social and
Economic Studies, 9:4:417-467.