September 02, 2001
By Raffique Shah
PRIME Minister Basdeo Panday must not be allowed to escape unscathed with the lies and half-truths he peddles to his supporters and the nation as he struggles for political survival within his own party. The innuendoes I shall allow him: he is a master of thinly veiled attacks against unnamed enemies, although few are fooled by his oblique references. But it's when he stretches the truth and distorts history that I have a real problem with him.
Last week, when the independent trade unions (ITU) staged its protest march from Mt Hope to Woodford Square to highlight labour relations matters as well as national issues like corruption, Panday slammed into the leaders of the march, branding us (yes, I was in the frontline) a "lunatic fringe". He spoke in glowing terms about his "trusted friends" at a ceremony organised by NUGFW to honour its founding president, Nathaniel Critchlow. Among his "trusted friends" present were ex-communists Wade Mark and Vincent Cabrera, and the president of NATUC (and NUGFW), Robert Giuseppi.
In his attack on the leaders of the ITU, he condemned our resorting to protest marches over dialogue, presumably with employers and the Government. Of course, Panday did not say that his government has refused to meet with leaders of the ITU on the very issues that we sought to highlight in the protest march. For example, in the case of the sale of Rum Distillers (Caroni's rum division) to Angostura, the Government has treated all the unions (except All Trinidad) with utter contempt. Even when we offered a higher price for 49 per cent of the distillery than Angostura was prepared to pay, our offer was dismissed.
So if the government treats one group of stakeholders with scant courtesy, what does he expect us to do? Sit quietly while he and his Cabinet sell out our sweat, not to add their souls, to political investors? There is the scandalous Trinmar issue that the OWTU has been highlighting even before the ISS report suggested rampant corruption in the handling of the West Soldado project. The CWU has called for the scrapping of the Telecommunications Bill, again to no avail. Fire officers, prisons officers, they all have myriad problems that the government has refused to address. Yet Panday is suggesting that we sit on our butts and give him and his rogue ministers free rein to stampede all over us and our members.
When he condemns unions engaging in protest marches and is applauded by unionists like Cabrera and Giuseppi, he conveniently forgets that it was he who initiated the biggest illegal march ever in this country, the oil and sugar march of March 18, 1975. Without consulting the rest of the leaders of the ULF (which was not yet a political party), when he was asked by a Guardian reporter what was the next step in that struggle, he replied: "We shall march on Whitehall!"
After he had made his statement to the press, the rest of us-George Weekes, Joe Young and myself-could not back off. The police viciously attacked the marchers in San Fernando. Riot police beat up on ordinary, even innocent, people, with scores of them nursing wounds that warranted medical attention. Vernon Jamadar, Weekes, John Humphrey and Winston Leonard were among those beaten, and the list of those locked up was an impressive one.
So for Panday to come today and condemn those who organise protest marches is hypocrisy of the highest order. He marched for any and everything when he was in the political wilderness. He marched so much, he even picked up a "foster child" in one such march (which, numerically, comprised only a few people). Panday also used the strike weapon indiscriminately when he was at the helm of All Trinidad.
Panday also sought to deify the late Carl Tull, with whom Cabrera had likened himself when he was asked about any conflict of interest in his role as acting chairman of the board at NBN and that of a unionist representing media workers. The way Panday praised Tull, you'd swear that the late labour leader was a veritable Butler. Well, let me refresh his memory, which seems to be failing him badly ever since he became Prime Minister. Panday's original claim to fame is that he was the legal advisor to the OWTU from as far back as 1966, and he often boasts of his close relationship with the late Weekes.
Tull was unrepentant tool of the Eric Williams PNM at a time when that party, then in government, set about to divide the labour movement and introduce the oppressive Industrial Stabilisation Act, which Weekes and others had fought against. Lest I be accused again of "denigrating one of the illustrious labour leaders of our time", I shall allow Weekes' ghost to tell the story of Tull's "service" to labour. In his biography, Weekes spoke of the bitter battle against the ISA, and of how those who opposed the Act had gathered in Parliament to register their disgust.
He painted the following scenario of that fateful, nay, shameful, day (when the Bill was being debated in Parliament. From Weekes' biography: "Suddenly all ears were drawn by the sound of marching feet and chants outside. Weekes felt a moment of elation. The workers of the country had decided not to take the Bill lying down. There was a rush to the balcony to see what was taking place in the streets below. The sight and sounds were crushing blows for Weekes. Hundreds of demonstrators were out there, holding banners aloft....The marchers had been drawn from steelbands and government special works projects. Prominent among the organisers were trade union leaders, especially Carl Tull and W.W. Sutton. They had come not to bury the ISA but to praise it."
And this: "The extereme within the NFL (a breakaway group from the NTUC) was represented by Tull, president of the CWU, (who) had just returned from ambassadorial assignment in British Guiana and (was) re-appointed to the Senate. Tull unapologetically acclaimed the ISA as 'the most progressive piece of legislation ever enacted in this country.' Tull's position is made even more ironic by the fact that in 1961 he was the chief instigator of demonstrations organised by NTUC in support of the PNM election campaign..."
Will Panday remember this one: "In 1971, when two PNM members in the all-PNM House defected to form an opposition, he (Weekes) again refused a senatorship. The issue was raised with him by Basdeo Panday, whom they were about to appoint to the Senate...Weekes declined..."
Need I say more about "Saint Tull"? Or about opportunist Panday?
Copyright © Raffique Shah