EIGHTY-ONE (81) years ago, the trade union movement of Trinidad and Tobago was officially cemented as a viable and social, economic and political force on June 19, 1937, when the Butler Oilfield Riots occurred, creating, essentially, the very foundation of our modern-day democracy.
Beyond its reshaping of our political system from that of exclusive privileged Colonial elitism to one of meritocracy in favour of the common man/woman, in essence, the labour movement also secured much of what we often take for granted today—our minimum wage, forty-hour work week, rights to sick, personal and maternity leave, workplace security, workers compensation, insurance and pension plans. Indeed, our working and middle-class population owe a debt of gratitude to this great movement.
Today, however, we commemorate the anniversary of this very significant day in our nation’s history amid current times of considerable social and economic turmoil.
Trinidad and Tobago is a nation hovering on the brink of a societal breakdown in the face of an unprecedented and alarming wave of crime and extreme violence that has members of the public living in a state of acute terror, as all appeals for assistance by the Government of the day fall on deaf, indifferent ears.
In addition, over the past three years, the Rowley -ed government has inflicted unprecedented, brutal and harsh conditions on the working and middle classes of this country, manifested in joblessness, rising prices, deteriorating working and living conditions, unprecedented increases in the cost of living, imposition of an oppressive and repressive property tax regime and a worsening distribution of wealth and income aimed at actively creating a working poor class.
Such conditions, amid the aforementioned Governmental indifference to the people’s plight, has engendered an overwhelming sense of frustration and deep despair among the collective citizenry.
It is noteworthy however, that in the 1930s, arguably one of the worst periods of our nation’s history, out of a similar collective national despair came a movement from the bowels of the common man and woman that essentially led to the creation of our nation’s progressive democratic systems, made possible when the ordinary working man and woman, in the wake of slave-like treatment from their employers in the country’s major State-owned revenue streams then—in particular the oil and sugar cane industries—recognised his/her self-worth, and then successfully transferred this into active agitation for his/her rights.
HISTORY – THE SUGAR RIOTS AND THE OILFIELD STRIKES
Our history books note that, until the 1930s, the social divide that existed in Trinidad was between capital and labour, which itself was a reflection of the master/slave relationship perpetuated under the Colonial system.
Labour comprised African and Indian men and women who were denied the right to vote while capital was made up of the minority white ruling class, whose power was cemented by the Government which actively ignored the plight of the majority working class population.
The global economic crash, known as the Great Depression, of the 1930s, exacerbated these conditions, creating a state of extreme poverty among the working classes, who suffered from reduced salaries and increased job tasks. Extreme hunger, unemployment and sheer desperation thus became the order of the day, but still, the Government refused to listen to the people’s plight.
For the poor, rural Indian workers in the sugar fields of Central Trinidad, this deliberate pauperisation of the working class finally took its toll in June and July of 1934 when they began an active and permanently damaging revolt against the sugar barons.
In the dry season of 1934, unusual drought-like conditions prevailed, and the Sugar Barons of the Central Trinidad estates, Tate & Lyle, decided to make up for the losses by massive retrenchment of workers and increasing the hours of task work for the ones they kept, but not increasing their salaries, while simultaneous withholding wages from the workers for up to three weeks, causing them to lose their standing in their village shops and inducing starvation among their children.
The women workers were most affected by this decision due to their additional duties as wives, mothers and caretakers of their homes, and, in the face of their sheer powerlessness and having no official voice to represent their cause, these workers spontaneously rebelled at Brechin Castle on July 6, 1934. Eight hundred workers from Esperanza and Brechin mobilised to protest against two months of unemployment.
This quickly led to an uprising that spread to County St. George East and the Central region with over 15,000 workers participating, leading to attacks on members of the estate hierarchy, several hunger marches throughout the Central region, and the arrests and jailing of hundreds of female and male sugar workers.
A year later, in 1935, African and Indian workers once again began to actively protest poor living and working conditions and in March 1935 oil workers at the Apex fields stood up against the practice of “blackballing” (banning of “troublemakers” by all oil companies) and also staged a hunger march. In May that year water and port workers went on strike and in August unemployed citizens of Port of Spain staged a series of demonstrations in defence of their right to work.
The culmination of this aggressive national labour movement of the working class was the historic 1937 Butler strike becoming the first registered trade Union of Trinidad and Tobago.
This period ushered in a new era for Trinidad and Tobago’s economic and political systems, as well as its social fabric, since, for the first but not last time in the nation’s history, the two major ethnicities—the African and Indians—united in a common cause to fight against worker abuse, underpayment for labour, racism, economic depression and a considerable fall in the living standards of the working class.
By the mere fact of this union, therefore, they forced the very fabric of our governance structure to change to represent the interest of the people; not the ruling elite, attaining thereafter the very totems of our modern political system—decolonisation, the right to vote, legal trade unions, party politics and political independence—that shaped not just our modern-day society but also, that of the wider Caribbean today.
LESSONS FROM HISTORY
The lessons from this turbulent but tremendous decade of our country’s history are thus clear—that in the most hopeless of times in our country, when the combination of extreme poverty, extreme Governmental oppression and extreme indifference to the common man/woman’s plight prevail, the people find a ray of light in the realisation that they have the power to change the political and economic systems of the day by virtue of their sheer will to live in dignity and justice and by the very necessary action of uniting in the common cause of nationalism for their own wellbeing and welfare.
This then is the endearing lesson from our nation’s pioneering labour greats—from Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler, Captain Andrew Arthur Cipriani, George Weekes, Albert Maria Gomes, Adrian Cola Rienzi, Elma Francois, and C.L.R James—to the later inheritors of the labour movement to those who preside over the mantle of its leadership today.
On this occasion of the 81st anniversary of the founding of the modern Trade Union Movement, the United National Congress (UNC) therefore recommits and rededicates itself to the promotion of sweeping and far-reaching fundamental Labour reform measures, inclusive of a comprehensive revision of the Industrial Relations Act, an overhauling of the archaic Retrenchment and Severance Benefits Act inclusive of the establishment of the Severance Fund Regime, a Basic Conditions of Work regime, as well as Sexual Harassment Legislation, among many others under the well-established ILO principle of Tripartism.
On behalf of the UNC, I wish the Labour movement a happy, meaningful and effective 2018 Labour Day, and call on the members and leaders of the collective Trade Unions to always commit to continuing in the tradition of its great forebearers.
I urge them to unite in defence of our citizens’ safety, security, freedom and the nation’s democracy and to eternally struggle with us the citizens against all tendencies of authoritarianism and indifference to the people’s plight, which are indeed the enduring hallmarks of the current PNM Administration.
Let the lessons of the pioneers who fought for all our rights, from the famous ones to the unnamed marchers and hunger strikers, forever endure and inspire us all in these times of despair—arming us with the knowledge from the movement’s rich history that we never truly fall to hopelessness. For, in our darkest times as a nation, we reflect on the labour movement and see that it was an undertaking of great trials and tribulations, but in the end, we endured, firm in the knowledge that live or die, in the words of the great civil and labour rights anthem:
“We shall overcome some day. We’ll walk hand in hand, We shall all be free, We are not afraid, We are not alone, Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome some day.”
Kamla Persad-Bissessar, SC, MP
Leader of the Opposition
19th June 2018