Raffique Shah


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Labour's Elusive Dream

June 23, 2002
By Raffique Shah

MANY years ago, when I accepted an invitation from a group of cane farmers and political activists to lead an almost stillborn trade union, I had little idea what I was getting into. Trade unionism was not something that was taught in school (it still isn't), and except for my interaction with giants of the labour movement like George Weekes, Winston Leonard and Clive Nunez who I met in prison, I was woefully uninformed about those who gave of themselves selflessly so that the wretched of the earth could see a better day. Even Tubal Uriah Butler, the undisputed father of labour in Trinidad and Tobago, was for me a blurred figure, a political "has-been" buried under the rubble of the might of Eric Williams and the PNM.

Thirty-two years later, if I tell you that I'm an now an expert on trade unionism, or worse, that I know my comrades in the movement well, that I can vouch for their selflessness, their dedication to improving the lot of the dispossessed, know ye, know ye that I would be lying through my remaining teeth! I write this column with this year's Labour Day celebrations in mind: on Wednesday last, thousands gathered at Fyzabad to commemorate that historical day. Thousands more stayed away, some probably fearful of a physical clash between the rival federations, others no doubt disgusted with the behaviour of leaders of the two groups.

Not surprisingly, the percentage of workers and farmers who are members of organised labour has diminished over the years, and that in the face of a bigger population, hence a larger work force. Trade unions have become unattractive to workers for many reasons. Unbridled capitalism has become the driving force behind most economies and has been adopted by with governments that have similar political, if not philosophical underpinnings. Besides undercutting the influence of unions through the use of contract labour-a system that's as close to slavery as we would see in this modern era-employers have succeeded in painting trade unionists as ogres, hence a turn-off to their full-time employees.

And the unionists have not helped their own cause. Many have resisted change. You listen to some unionists and you swear you are caught in a time warp, that you are back in the 18th Century in some coalmine in remote England. The "comrades" have refused to re-tool and re-engineer both their brains and their organizations, preferring instead to abide by the ancient code of might-is-right, without realising that they no longer have might, and quite often they are not right. From the perspective of being competitive, they have rendered their organisations obsolete through their inability to modernise their unions.

There is another factor that has affected the local movement. Unfortunately for us in this country, our unions were never involved directly in politics, except for brief forays under the banners of the WIIP in 1956, the WFP in 1966 and the ULF in 1976. In most other Caribbean countries unions provided the bases for the emergence of political parties, hence they had influence in government (or opposition). Not here. In our modern history, Williams and the PNM mouthed support for labour, but when challenged on bread and butter issues, they resorted to suppression of the movement through draconian legislation. It was no different in the DLP, and once the early ULF shed its labour-skin in a snake-like manner, its incarnation became a deadly viper in the bosom of the movement.

Therein lay the fertile ground that saw the seeds of disunity that were planted by the colonial government back in the 1930s-40s, bloom in the 1960s. In the 1930s, Adrian Rienzi was a "red thorn" in the side of the British governor of the colony, having some ties with communist and radical labour elsewhere in the developed world. He joined Butler in that struggle in 1937 and went on to be the first leader of both the OWTU and All Trinidad. By the time Butler was released from wartime detention in 1946, Rienzi was among those who conspired with the colonial government to keep Buzz out of the OWTU. The attorney/unionist would later be rewarded with the position of Crown Counsel, and that was the end of his association with labour.

When the PNM came on the political scene in 1955, many unionists aligned themselves with the nationalist rhetoric spouted by Dr Williams. Butler, who was still around and involved in both trade unionism and politics, found himself deserted by some hitherto close comrades. But once he came to power, Williams cleverly cultivated the malleable unionists (he probably identified them by their lap-dog-tongues) and spurned those who insisted on the independence of the movement. The Labour Congress would eventually become all-PNM (including All Trinidad, which was led by Bhadase Maharaj who headed the opposition PDP, but who secretly maintained close relations with Williams).

So the split between Butler and Rienzi in 1946 was only the first in the movement. By 1965 the Labour Congress split over a strike by sugar workers who wanted Weekes to represent them: Congress, and Williams, found that Bhadase was a more acceptable unionist, and the result was Weekes resigning as president of Congress and the latter supporting Williams' introduction of the infamous Industrial Stabilising Act, a piece of legislation that clipped the wings of militant unions. Later, split after split would occur. The core problem was not leadership, or who should lead. It was, and remains, a fundamental difference between unionists who pandered to whatever party was in power, mostly for self-gain, and those who insisted on the movement remaining independent of any party.

That, in essence, is what played out at Fyzabad last Wednesday. The Natuc-aligned unions buried their navel strings in Panday's backyard, so they lorded over their counterparts who insisted on independence. Just as Carl Tull and Sutton, among others, condoned the emasculation of the movement by Williams, so too Wade Mark, Vincent Cabrera, Michael Als and Guiseppi, again among others, latched on to Panday like leeches. They never defended the rights of workers and unions when the latter were under the government's gun, even though they were part of government. They are the modern day Tulls.

The dream of labour unity, therefore, is an elusive one. There will always be leaders and activists who will remain faithful to the cause of the worker, the oppressed. And there will always be those who will sell their souls-and their members-for personal gains. In the beginning, as it will be in the end, the twain shall never meet.

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