A Man Of The People
The time was 1971. At the helm of the government stood premier George Walter. A man of the people, he fought for his countrymen through the Progressive Labour Movement (PLM). It was the only time in history that the Antigua Labour Party (ALP) lost the reins of power and according to some political pundits, it was the best of times or the worst of times. His government was branded the road government during its five-year stint.
Some called them vindictive, while others hailed them as progressive. Walter’s tenure in politics started in the Antigua Trades & Labour Union (AT&LU) when Sir Vere asked him to serve temporarily as the editor of the Workers Voice for three months. Before this, he was a jack-of-all-trades. After he graduated from the Grammar School in 1948, he was sent to manage his father's estate in Rendezvous Bay for the next nine years.
Later, he built a boat and served as a ferryman between Antigua and the Virgin Islands, and then finally turned to fishing as his livelihood. Sir Vere asked the young Walter to take over the management of the Workers Voice newspaper. He had been writing for years about the ills of the country under the pseudonym, "Point Man", so managing the paper was an excellent opportunity to flex his journalistic muscle.
He liked the job so much that he stayed for the next two years (1958 to 1959).Walter reorganised the paper, modernised the press, doubled circulation and made a name for himself, which served in good stead later. It was towards the end of 1959 and the British government gave us an additional ministry, the Ministry of Labour. Lionel Hurst was the general-secretary of the AT&LU and was the obvious person to fill that position.
"He resigned the position and they called a conference on the Sunday, 3 Jan., 1960 at the St. John's Boys School to elect a new general-secretary for the union," he explained. In the race were four other men and Walter won hands down. "I got more votes than all the men put together and I became the elected general-secretary," he said.
The next day, he employed Donald Halstead as an additional field officer and Milton Benjamin to manage the paper. "And that started my career in the trade union movement and politics because the political party and the union were the same thing," he said, noting that he was also secretary of the political committee within the union. He served as general-secretary until 1957 and then the break in the AT AND LU came. "They called a special conference and fired me," he said dryly.
Halstead was also fired. Bird accused him of trying to topple the government based on information from McChestney George. Walter was accused of going to the bank and telling the manager not to lend the government any money to take off the sugar crop. He denied the allegations and was still fired. The days that followed his dismissal shook the very core of the AT AND LU and the ALP. When others questioned Walter's dismissal, they were fired from the AT And LU.
Their outrage shook Antigua. Walter refused to take his dismissal lightly and went to the public. He was dismissed the Friday night and Monday night with bullhorn in hand and the legions of disgruntled unemployed AT AND LU brain and brawn behind him, they filled the Antigua Recreation Grounds in one of the largest political meetings ever. "It was their first big meeting, like a cricket match and I think the public was behind me," he said.
The people demanded a new union and "began collecting money that very night." Seventy-five per cent of the AT AND LU moved over to the new union, the Antigua Workers' Union (AWU), with Walter as their general-secretary. "We had a readymade union. They were exciting times. Things were on an edge. I used my house as the office, my wife as my secretary and the piano was her desk," he said laughing. The PLM was eventually formed out of the AWU in 1968.
Walter resigned as general-secretary of the AWU and became the political leader of the new party. "We used to have a meeting every night and I talked until I had a terrific sore throat." A hot political campaign began in 1969, resulting in the PLM winning the election in March 1971 by a large margin. Although his government was ousted in 1976, Walter is tremendously proud of the PLM’s accomplishments.
The Social Security Act, the Labour Code that was copied in every Caribbean territory, the Representation of the People's Act and the founding of the Antigua & Barbuda Development Bank were all the work of the PLM. In addition, the PLM embarked on an extensive road programme; bought land to construct government buildings; built five secondary schools; created the Central Marketing Corporation which bought everything from the Antiguan farmers and exported within the region and outside and Walter asserts that the banks' savings doubled during his tenure.
"Everybody knows that during the period 1971 to 76, we made a lot of progress," he said with exclamations in his voice. So why did their reign end? "We got more votes than the Labour Party," he said, concerning the 1976 election. "We got the popular vote. If it were by popular vote, we would have won the election." The ALP with its strong propaganda machine picketed against his government. But the real reason why they lost in 1976 was based on the bread and butter issues.
The world was experiencing economic crisis and naturally it trickled down and left Antiguans out of work and without their salaries. To solve the problem, Walter and his government put the Public Works workers on a shift system. The people rebelled and brought an end to the PLM government. After that, things for the PLM went downhill. They never gained many seats in Parliament again, even after there was a rift in the PLM, which resulted in the United Progressive Movement.
In all, he had 10 years in government – five as premier and the other five as leader of the opposition. After the 1982 elections, he gave up politics and went back to his cattle farm. But Walter has few regrets." I do not look back with any grief. I served my country well and I served even before in the AT&LU and the AWU," he said with a satisfied smile.
The time was 11 a.m., 20 Oct. 2004. Sir Walter, (then) 75 years old, had a halo of white hair and amicable features. As he reclined in his veranda chair, he wondered aloud what will come of his nation. "I hope that we will have more unity in the direction of trying to develop Antigua and Barbuda so everyone will have work and peace and love."
Author: Eucelia Hill. Published Wednesday March 05. 2008