Belizean stamp celebrating the history of radical Belizean trade union leader, Antonio Soberanis
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Friday April 8, 2016

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Belizean stamp celebrating the history of radical Belizean trade union leader, Antonio Soberanis

Let us recall the radical and dynamic work of Belizean Trade Unionist leader, Antonio Soberanis. It is important to highlight him because in that era of politics in Belize, the unions had incredible power and influenced the outcome of the general elections.

Many older folks will be happy to mention the actions of Samuel Haynes, Antonio Soberanis and the Belize Labor Movement. Antonio Soberanis was a model activist who pushed Belizeans to fight for fair wages and lived by the motto that he would rather be “a dead hero than a living coward”. But why was it so necessary for Antonio Soberanis to take such a firm stand? How bad were the labor laws in our country?

It all began in the early 1800s, when the British were looking for workers in the settlement. Many Belizean men were not able to own land and had to resort to logging. For more than a century, workers were paid no more than $15 monthly plus rations (28qts of flour and 16lbs of pork) for their work. In some cases, advance salary was given and paid back immediately upon returning to work. Workers were responsible to pay employers if they were sick, late, lazy or disrespectful and often owed employers money at the end of contracted work which meant having to sign up for another term of work.

In the late 1800s, even stricter penalties became evident. Workers would be imprisoned for not attending work and could even be dragged to the work site if an employer so chooses. In 1894 the Belize dollar devalued and an already small pay became even smaller. The after shocks of The Great Depression and the 1931 Hurricane only made matters worse, resulting in such a high unemployment rate that Belizeans had to survive on boiled rice and breaking stones for 25 cents a day.

In the midst of our labor dilemma, it was Antonio Soberanis who took matters into his own hands and demanded work for the unemployed and higher wages for the employed. This meant protesting, rioting and even being imprisoned when necessary so that the officials would consider crown colony government. His mission spread countrywide and workers across Belize began to fight for their labor rights.

Antonio Soberanis’ efforts were not futile. Many other activists emerged alongside and after him resulting in great achievements for the Belizean labor force. Today, we have the right to be a part of a union; women can be employed in any field of work; minimum wages have increased; social security payments are mandatory; there is a labor department, child labor committees, apprenticeships and other social programs. Some institutions even go as far as to ensure that their employees get insurance (life, medical, dental, vision), allowances and pension benefits.

Antonio Soberanis Gómez (January 14, 1897 – April 14, 1975) was an activist in the Belizean labour movement. He founded the Labour and Unemployed Association in 1934 to demand poverty relief work and a minimum wage. He was jailed for sedition in 1935.

Antonio Soberanis was born to Mexican parents in the Belizean village of San Antonio Rio Hondo in Orange Walk. His family had immigrated to Belize in 1894. He attended Holy Redeemer Boy’s School in Belize City and thereafter became a barber. He owned “The Panama Barbershop,” originally located on Handyside Street and then Queen Street in Belize City, which hosted many political discussions until it was boycotted in 1932 due to his political activities. He fathered thirteen children and was married twice, first to Violet Garbutt.

The decline of the mahogany trade, the Great Depression and the 1931 hurricane created terrible living conditions for the working class in British Honduras around 1934-35. An organization called the Unemployed Brigade demonstrated for more work and better pay, but after meeting with colonial Governor Harold Baxter Kittermaster, all that was granted to them were 80 more jobs for the 1,800 registered unemployed and a feeding program of "rice lab" (a porridge of sugar and boiled rice) and bread cooked in the washing pots. The leaders of the Unemployed Brigade gave up hope and resigned, but Soberanis called the leaders cowards. He said that he would continue fighting for the cause and that he was not afraid to die. In his most famous quote, he said, “I’d rather be a dead hero than a living coward.” With his colleagues he formed the Labor and Unemployed Association (LUA) which organized many boycotts, demonstrations and pickets against large merchants such as the B.E.C. (Belize Estate and Produce Company), John Harley and Co., Hofius and Hilderbrant, Melhado and Sons, and Brodies. The LUA held large demonstrations at the Battlefield Park, directly in front of the courthouse. At the meetings Soberanis campaigned for work for the unemployed and spoke against the Government. He also traveled to Dangriga and Corozal Town to encourage support for the cause of higher wages outside Belize City.

On 1 October 1934, Soberanis organised the first labour strike at the B.E.C. sawmill. It turned into a riot, and the police arrested 17 people. When he went to post bail for those arrested at the strike, he was himself arrested. The police refused to grant him bail and held him for 35 days, which weakened the LUA and caused many other LUA leaders to leave the group. He replaced them and continued his activism. In 1935 the Government passed several new laws, including one banning criticism. When he made a speech in Corozal Town in October 1935 calling the large merchant stores "bloodsuckers" and the Governor and the King "crooks," he was arrested again. He was charged with sedition, but was released after paying a BZ$25 fine.

The efforts of the LUA yielded some good results: the wages of grapefruit dock workers in Dangriga were raised from 8 cents to 25 cents an hour; more men were employed to work on the Northern Highway following the receipt of a BZ$250,000 grant; and partial representation was granted to the elected officers in the Legislative Council. In addition, the LUA operated their own food program by organizing fundraising activities and collecting gifts from merchants and sympathizers who were not followers. They also operated a medical wing called the Red and Green Nurses, named after the colours of the LUA. The Nurses, headed by Cristobel Usher, dispensed free medical care to LUA members.

The LUA movement was short-lived as there was infighting, leading to a split in the leadership. Soberanis’s political activities continued up until 1942, when he left Belize to serve the British military in Panama. In 1950 the movement handed over their political followers to the newly formed People’s Committee, now the People's United Party, and Soberanis became a councilor of the party.

At the age of 78, Soberanis died and was buried at his farm in Santana Village.

Photograph courtesy Belizean Legends

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