Antiguan slaves were emancipated in 1834 but remained economically dependent on the plantation owners. Economic opportunities for the new freedmen were limited by a lack of surplus farming land, no access to credit, and an economy built on agriculture rather than manufacturing.
In 1842 fieldworkers in Antigua who were deemed “first class” earned “one and a half shillings per day” or EC36 cents. In Barbados, fieldworkers, not “first class” fieldworkers, earned “one shilling and seven pence” or EC38 cents per day. In Trinidad “two shillings per day” or EC 48 cents, and in Tobago one shilling or 24 cents per day. In British Guiana, as Guyana was then called, it was “one shilling and eight pence to two shillings per day” or 40, to 48 cents per day. In St Vincent field workers pay ranged from 16 cents to 48 cents per day. Antigua was among the lowest of the low.
In 1845 Antiguan planters cut the wage to field workers from 36 cents to 24 cents. By 1848 it had been cut from 24 cents to 18 cents. Antigua and Antiguans were among the most exploited wage-earners, in field and factory, between 1848 and 1940. The last general wage increase in Antigua had been in 1888, for the next 52 years.
Poor Labour conditions persisted until 1939, when a member of a royal commission urged the formation of a trade union movement.
The Antigua Trades and Labour Union, formed shortly afterward, became the political vehicle for Vere Cornwall Bird , who became the union’s president in 1943. The Antigua Labour Party (ALP), formed by Bird and other trade unionists, first ran candidates in the 1946 elections and became the majority party in 1951, beginning a long history of electoral victories.
It took V.C. Bird as President and chief organiser of the AT&LU some eight years, 1943-51 to organise the downpressed black workers of Antigua. He worked practically all day and all night, hiring vehicles at night from Chelsea garage and Clarence Edwards of Market Street, and neglecting family, leading to unhappiness and divorce.
In 1950 V.C. Bird led the AT&LU to declare May 1st 1951 as Labour Day, which day Antiguan labour would join workers around the world, celebrating the fallen heroes of labour, and the struggle of labour to come.
A defining moment in the history of the two-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda is a legendary – some say apocryphal – speech by Bird under a tamarind tree near the village of Bethesda in January 1951, when Antigua was still a British colony and Bird was a labour leader.
Bird threatened a strike if sugar workers were not given a raise. When Alexander Moody-Stuart, the powerful head of the Antigua Sugar Estates, scoffed and asked what the striking workers would eat, Bird replied: “We will eat cockles and the widdy-widdy bush. We will drink pond water.”
On Jan 2 1952, after a long strike, the workers received the 25% increase they had asked for. The strength, determination, solidarity and sacrifice of the workers fighting against tyranny and injustice had brought the sugar barons to their knees. The workers had won their rights by their own enormous efforts. It was one of the greatest accomplishments of Antigua people.
In 1955 V.C. Bird made the first expansion of secondary education, and the beginning of public secondary education with the establishment of the Princess Margaret School. In 1962, the V.C. Bird government took over the Antigua Grammar School, founded in 1884, and the Antigua Girl’s High School, founded in 1886, from the Anglican church.
In 1956 a form of ministerial government was introduced.
Between 1960 and 1968, when most of the current hotels were constructed the Antiguan economy grew at an unprecedented rate of growth, then or since, according to economist Dr Carlie O’Loughlin, achieving a rate of 8.5 per cent per annum. It is the spectacular achievement of the V.C. Bird government.
When British landowners decided to close down the sugar plantations, Bird got a loan from the Royal Bank of Canada so the local government could buy them, which amounted to 80 percent of Antigua.
Bird introduced free secondary education, island-wide electricity service and building projects such as an international airport, deep-water harbour and interior village roads. He aggressively promoted tourism, making Antigua a leading Caribbean destination.
In 1967, Antigua became an associated state of Britain
Voted out of office in the 1971 general elections that swept the progressive Labour movement into power, Bird and the ALP returned to office in 1976.
On Nov. 1, 1981, Antigua and Barbuda gained independence within the Commonwealth with Vere Bird Sr. of the Antigua Labour Party (ALP) as Prime Minister.
The party won renewed mandates in the general elections in 1984 and 1989. In the 1989 elections, the ruling ALP won all but two of the 17 seats.
In August 1993, son of Vere Bird, and Foreign Affairs minister Lester Bird was elected to replace his father as the new ALP leader in preparation for elections scheduled for March 1994. During elections in March 1994, power passed from Vere Bird to his son, Lester Bird , but remained within the Antigua Labour Party. The ALP won 11 of the 17 parliamentary seats.
In the 1999 election, the Antigua Labour Party, under the leadership of Lester B. Bird , won 12 of the 17 parliamentary seats.