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SIR FRANK LESLIE WALCOTT*
(1916-1999)
 

Walcott

Building on the foundation laid by such stalwarts as Sir Grantley Adams and Sir Hugh Springer, Sir Frank Leslie Walcott has become an heroic trade union fixture as much in recorded history as in folk memory.

A tough, principled negotiator with a visionary approach to bargaining for improved conditions for the working population, he served the island's first trade union - the Barbados Workers' Union - for 50 years.

Beginning as an active unionist in 1941, he rose from the status of a humble clerk at Lashley's on Swan Street to become assistant to Sir Hugh Springer, the BWU's first General-Secretary. He succeeded Springer on July 25, 1948.

Born on September 16, 1916, in St. Peter, the son of a policeman who died when he was very young, Frank was raised in Bridgetown and attended Wesley Hall Boys' School where he came under the strong influence of legendary Barbadian Headmaster of revered memory, Rawle Parkinson.

Walcott gained a reputation for being a good mathematician and skilled craft worker. In the late 1920s, when he was seeking employment, liberal and progressive forces were asserting themselves in a quest for democracy, including organising workers into trade unions.

In the 1930s, he became an active member of debating groups such as the Weymouth and Riverside Clubs where his fearless views attracted the attention of some progressive leaders. Hugh Springer who, along with Grantley Adams, led the Progressive League, formed in 1938, soon invited Sir Frank to join the labour movement. He showed promise as a union worker and from January 1, 1945 became assistant to Springer who was also General-Secretary of the Progressive League. After March 10, 1946, he was fully employed by the BWU and spent 45 years as an employee, initially being involved in grievance handling and later negotiations and all the administrative duties which fell under Springer's control.

Thus when Springer left the union in October 1947, to be the new Registrar of the University College of the UWI, his successor was obvious. Frank Walcott was appointed to act as General-Secretary on November 5, 1947, and the following year on July 25 was elected General-Secretary at the Annual Delegates' Conference.

Sir Frank distinguished himself locally, regionally and internationally. He consolidated the union's internal administration while engaged in organising workers and negotiating on their behalf.

It is significant that he acceded to the position of General-Secretary at a time when the union was fused with a political party. Over the next six years, he quietly achieved three objectives:

  • extricating the union from its junior position in the partnership with the Barbados Labour Party,

  • organising an effective accounting system which could pass the closest scrutiny of independent auditors, and

  • making the union more militant.

Describing himself as "frank by name and frank by nature", Walcott adopted a forceful but reasonable approach to trade unionism. By 1954, as they were captivated by his dynamism, workers in the utilities, in government as well as clerical and white collar employees became substantially unionised.

As General-Secretary in those days, when Barbados moved from being a British Caribbean colony to being a proud independent nation by 1966, Walcott embarked on a process of self-education, study tours, seminars and longer courses, including one at the University of Miami's Centre for Advanced International Studies, in preparation for his arduous task in the field of industrial relations.

Walcott had only an elementary education when he entered the BWU as a paid functionary. It is therefore remarkable testimony to his outstanding abilities, energies and character that he rose steadily within the organisation and expanded the role which he inherited from Springer.

In continuing the difficult task of organising sugar workers on plantations throughout the island, it was clear to Walcott that only organised labour and strong, capable leadership could reduce the power of an entrenched oligarchy which was accustomed to having its way in every confrontation with workers. Walcott proved himself more than a match for the planter-merchant oligarchy.

As Dr. Francis Mark points out in his book "The History of the Barbados Workers' Union", Sir Frank came to the post of General-Secretary "with none of the social or educational advantages or mystique of the Founding Fathers (Adams and Springer) and with none of the 'externals' which was linked in the Barbadian consciousness with traditional leadership, yet after five years in the post he was clearly the union's most forceful personality."

Walcott established the administrative authority of the General-Secretary and gained full confidence of the Union's Governing Council. By 1953 he was elected to the Executive Board of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, a capacity in which he served until his retirement in 1991.

Recognition of his stature as a regional and international trade unionist followed quickly. He served as President of the Caribbean Congress of Labour for three terms 1960- 1963, 1966- 1969, 1977- 1980.

Few other Caribbean trade unionists gained such honours as listed here, either before or after this period: Member of the Governing Body, International Labour Organisation; Vice-President Executive Board, ICFTU; Member of AIFLD (American Institute for Free Labour Development), Board of Trustees and Chairman, World Employment Conference.

He also made his presence felt at important regional and international conferences, among them the Inter-American Ministers of Labour and Trade Union Hemispheric Conferences, Commonwealth Sugar Conferences, Lom Convention meetings and a Special Session of the United Nations in South West Africa.

In a 1958 study entitled "An Analysis of the Political Situation in Barbados", eminent author and political scientist, C.L.R. James, noted: "Walcott impressed me as one of the ablest and most modern-minded labour and political organisers I have met in the West Indies. ... In reply to my question as to what he wanted, say for the next five years, he replied unequivocally that he saw himself as devoting his energies to the trade union movement."

Indeed, Frank Walcott never wavered in his quest to expand the union's role and consolidate its gains. Between 1958 and 1991 he made the BWU as strong as any in the region, concentrating not only on collective bargaining but on worker education and housing, as well as on evolution of the professional trade unionist and improvement of the quality of life in Barbados as a whole.

The Labour College at Mangrove in St. Philip, established in 1975, owes its existence to Walcott's progressive thinking, and he organized scholarships there for members of the BWU and their dependents. His guiding principle was: "Unity is strength. Where there is no vision, the people perish".

Arguably the single most important factor in the development of Barbados' unionism as a bulwark against a return to the entrenched exploitation of workers, he won the union's right to be represented on all important national developmental projects. He himself served on many Boards and Committees, including the National Insurance Board, National Economic Council and the Immigration Advisory Committee. He was a Director of the Export Promotion Committee and the Barbados National Bank, besides being a member of the University of the West Indies' Finance Committee. Walcott was also a Privy Councillor from 1970 to 1976.

He became a Member of Parliament from 1945 to 1966 and again in 1971 to 1976, and played a role in the famous Bushe Experiment as a member of the Executive Committee, the precursor to the modern Cabinet from 1948 to 1954. During 1966 to 1971 he served as a Senator and was President of that Chamber from 1986 to 1991. When Barbados gained Independence in 1966 he was appointed the island's first Ambassador to the United Nations.

It is not often that a Barbadian has stood out as extra-ordinary while working in the company of great patriots in their struggle for social justice. Yet, Sir Frank did just that alongside Sir Grantley Adams, Sir Hugh Springer and Mr. Errol W. Barrow. With them, and in his own right, Sir Frank Walcott made a truly remarkable contribution to modern Barbados.

Frank Leslie Walcott evolved from the 'Boy from obscurity' as he often referred to himself, to the single most important personality in trade unionism in Barbados. For fifty years, starting in 1941, Frank -now Sir Frank- distinguished himself at the local, regional and international levels, organising workers, negotiating on their behalf and, most of all, inculcating a militant but measured, non-violent and reasonable approach to trade unionism, certainly an amazing feat.

A tough, dynamic negotiator, Sir Frank attracted all types to the mission of the Barbados Workers' Union- sugar, public utilities and even white collar workers all joined the union. He brought a level of maturity to the bargaining table at a time when emotion and disturbance could easily have ruled; his vision and quest to establish the BWU as strong as any anywhere in the world was enhanced by his commitment to the improvement of the quality of life in Barbados as a whole.

The record of civil stability and peaceful protest is linked inextricably to the level- headedness and shrewdness of Sir Frank. Under his forceful leadership, the union also concentrated on worker education and training, affordable housing, scholarships and representation of the union on all significant national developmental projects- an ideology which remains to this day.

Also a politician of note, he was a member of Parliament, cabinet member, the first Ambassador to the United Nations and Senator, serving as president of the Senate from 1986 until he retired from public life.

An international powerhouse, he alone can be credited with creating in Barbados a rich and enduring heritage of social partnership, unheard of in many parts of the world; a labour of love ... seeds sown, tended and brought to fruition by this giant of a man. He is a lasting testimony to what great possibilities can be realised from humble beginnings. 

Frank Leslie Walcott- frank by name and frank by nature.

* Source: "National Heroes of Barbados", published by The Barbados Government Information Service. Information provided by Government of Barbados.


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