Although organized labor was instrumental in the rise of the PUP, its political importance has diminished significantly since the 1950s. In early 1991, organized labor was fragmented, weak, and politically unimportant. In the late 1980s, total union membership was estimated at about 6,000. Membership was divided among some eighteen trade unions. The country's six major trade unions made up the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB), which was affiliated with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICTFU), the Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers (Organización Regional Interamericana de Trabajadores--ORIT), and the Caribbean Congress of Labor. These organizations were philosophically and financially tied to labor organizations in the United States. The formal ties that once existed with political parties disappeared, and the PUP and the UDP effectively absorbed or neutralized the political voice of the unions once affiliated with them.
The modern labor movement in Belize began in the 1934, when Antonio Soberanis Gómez founded the Labourers and Unemployed Association (LUA). Vestiges of the repressive labor laws inherited from the nineteenth-century colonial era were not abolished until 1959, but changes in 1941 and 1943 enabled the British Honduras Workers and Tradesmen's Union (founded by Soberanis in 1939), to register legally as a trade union in 1943. Shortly thereafter, the union changed its name to the General Workers' Union (GWU). Because the GWU's strikes and organizing activities targeted the agricultural and forestry sectors, especially the Belize Estate and Produce Company, its organizational structure in rural areas made it a particularly desirable partner for the PUP in the anticolonial struggle of the 1950s.
Membership in the GWU grew from 350 in 1943 to over 3,000 in the late 1940s and peaked in 1955 at about 12,000. In 1956 membership fell to 700. The union's explosive growth and then rapid decline must be seen in light of its role in the anticolonial movement and the loss of that role to the PUP.
Cooperation in the late 1940s between the GWU and the People's Committee, the forerunner of the PUP, eventually led to the PUP's control of the union through interlocking leadership. While the PUP drew on the GWU's organizational structure, it abandoned the GWU's socialist ideology in order to attract support from all segments of Belizean society. Having lost its distinct political voice, the GWU ceased playing a key role in the anticolonial movement after the PUP's 1956 internal split, which left the union in the hands of dissident party members. Price's associates founded a rival labor movement, the Christian Workers' Union, hastening the decline of the GWU and lending support to the PUP. The PUP by then had established its own organization throughout the country and no longer needed to rely on outside organizational support.
With its role in the anticolonial movement usurped by the PUP, the labor movement was dormant as a political force during the 1960s and 1970s. The labor movement instead focused its energies on collective bargaining and job-related issues. In the late 1970s, however, a new generation of union activists attempted to reestablish labor's independent political voice through the United General Workers Union (UGWU). This union was formed by the amalgamation of the Belize General Development Workers' Union and the Southern Christian Union in 1979.
Most of the Belizean press, the leadership of both the PUP and UDP, and organized labor, (including the Corozal branch of the UGWU, whose leadership had strong ties to the PUP, and the influential Public Service Union, which had close ties to the UDP), were hostile to the UGWU. The hostility stemmed not only from UGWU's efforts to encroach on what the politicians and their union supporters thought to be their turf, but also from the ideological orientation of the union. Some critics accused the UGWU of being communist because of the union's ties to trade union federations affiliated with the Soviet-controlled World Federation of Trade Unions, its sending of members to study in Cuba and the Soviet Union, its open support for revolutionary movements in Central America, and because of the ideological stance of Gombay, a magazine edited by UGWU leaders.
The UGWU (and its rivals) grew rapidly in the late 1970s as it organized banana, citrus, and sugar workers, as well as employees of the Belize Electricity Board and the Development Finance Corporation. Nevertheless, the union's failure to support strikes of other unions severely crippled the UGWU and removed it from the national political scene. These strikes were called to oppose the Heads of Agreement in 1981 and the formation that same year by the Corozal branch of the UGWU of a new union, which overwhelmingly defeated the UGWU in an election to choose a bargaining agent for the sugar workers.
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