Labour Day blues

By Raffique Shah
June 28, 2017

Raffique ShahI awoke on Labour Day morning to Public Services Association (PSA) president Watson Duke saying in a television interview: Maternity leave? I’m not talking about maternity leave. I am talking about parental leave…two years each for both mother and father…

I groaned, my features turning sour, my Labour Day mood dampened, not by the approaching storm, but by the “gobar” being spewed from the mouth of one of the senior trade unionists in the country. I had gone to sleep the previous night thinking of the glory days at Fyzabad, between 1973 and 2009, when, without fail, I marched with pride alongside giants like George Weekes and Joe Young, and later Clive Nunez, Errol McLeod, Lyle Townsend and others, leading thousands of enthusiastic workers and farmers and unemployed persons, lustily singing our union battle-hymns.

I had lain awake last night thinking of the struggles we had engaged in, the strikes we had led, the victories we had scored-winning wage increases and higher prices for farmers’ sugar canes (in my case), better working and living conditions not just for our members, but through ripple effect, for many of the working people in the country who were not unionised, and businesses that benefitted from the back-pays.

I remembered how, after every victory, we leaders would appeal to our members to work harder to justify their salary increases, to be more productive so the enterprises that employed them would be even more successful, thereby ensuring their jobs security and benefits.

Oh, we were no saints, I can tell you. From that platform in Fyzabad we cussed many prime ministers, government officials, private sector employers and sundry anti-labour sinners. But they could not help but respect us they knew through interaction with us that while we fought tenaciously for workers’ interests, we were patriots who always put our country first.

I thought of trade unions today, diminished in numbers, hence strength, and devoid of leaders of the stature of Young and Weekes, who were my seniors in both age and experience, and who, working with mentors like Winston Leonard, Lennox Pierre and Allan Alexander, transformed my Sandhurst leadership skills into what was required to lead the masses. Today’s leaders do not have such esteemed mentors.

If they did, Watson Duke would hardly have proffered, in the midst of the biggest, most critical economic crisis the country has faced, “two-year parental leave” for working couples with new=born babies. Given such incentives to “make babies”, all workers of reproductive age will be on leave permanently!

Anti-labour elements will use this in their vitriol, making unionists look foolish. What the unions should aim for is one year’s maternal leave across the board, funded partly by the employer and partly by a rescued national insurance, and maybe one month for fathers who live with their children’s mothers: in other words, none for absentee fathers.

A good mentor will have counselled Ancel Roget against telling bpTT to “take yuh rig and go”. He will have told the OWTU leader that now is not the time to pick a fight with the oil giant, not when we need to find jobs for hundreds of nationals who are trained to fabricate drilling platforms, and when billions of dollars in plant and equipment are lying idle in La Brea.

If George Weekes were alive, he would have warned the unionists who set aside their deep-seated differences to show unity at Fyzabad this year, not to expect it will last longer than a sno-cone in the hot sun. Such unity, tried and failed numerous times before, is both an illusion and elusive. Besides fundamental ideological differences that have long existed, there are oversized egos that cannot fit in a common room.

Weekes would have advised today’s leaders to first secure the jobs of their memberships, ensure that they do not lose their wages and benefits, and rather than seek to burden the State with a bigger salaries’ bill at this time, call for over-compensated managerial and executive staff, especially those in the energy sector, to show their concern for country by trimming their packages by 10, maybe 15 percent.

Such adjustments, Lennox Pierre might add, would disprove the Stalinist theory that only the working classes are made to bear the burden of economic adjustments in capitalist societies. Joe Young would have called on “the comrades” to think of the mass of peasants living below the poverty line, and argue that, if anything, the unions should fight the Government and the capitalists to “run something” in that direction.

All these thoughts engaged my remaining brain cells as I tried to fall asleep on Sunday night. I stored them in the “columns” sub-section, thinking I’d write an upbeat commentary today, a substitute for my inability to march in “Fyza” belting out louder than Ramcharitar “Bull” Lalchan, “Hold the fort, for we are coming, unionists be strong…”

Then I awaken to Watson Duke and his arrant nonsense. Steups.

3 Responses to “Labour Day blues”


  • ” I had gone to sleep the previous night thinking of the glory days at Fyzabad, between 1973 and 2009, when, without fail, I marched with pride alongside giants like George Weekes and Joe Young, and later Clive Nunez, Errol McLeod, Lyle Townsend and others, leading thousands of enthusiastic workers and farmers and unemployed persons, lustily singing our union battle-hymns.”

    Mention those names and the feelings of nostalgia hit me. Raff one name you missed out and that is the name Basdeo Panday. It would have been around 1975, I was in standard 5 when the news came that you, Panday and others were marching for better wages for cane farmers.
    We had a discussion in class about this March. The teacher asked us what should the government do about this March. There were various suggestions but foolish me suggested that they should use the police to “tear gas” protesters. We listened to the radio and sure enough you guys were tear gassed. Needless to say I was “persona non grata” for the day as the teacher face “hanged low” But that day you all won a moral victory. The boys in the area gathered for the usual “blag” about the event. The word going around was that Shah due to his Sandhurst training grabbed Panday hand and helped him scale a wall to escape police brutality. You were our hero.

    But back to the days of George Weekes and others whose contribution to the working class is immense. The trade union movement helped to lift the standard of living for all and sundry. It changed TNT.

    When one think trade union the name Adrian Cola Reinzi aka Krishna Deonarine does not emerge immediately. He to me is the father of the trade union movement in Trinidad. It is a shame that his memory is not fully preserved. The OWTU first president was Adrian and he went on to form 4 other unions that today have made significant contributions to the upward mobility of the working class. When will the OWTU fully recognize their first president and pay him the honors he so richly deserved? I hope they would instead of promoting this pan African nationalist mindset when the trade union movement was an effort of both ethnicities.

    • That’s interesting about the help offered to Panday to scale a wall. I heard otherwise where ‘Shah buss a slap on Panday’. But you’re quite correct on Panday seeking the wellbeing of the sugar workers and Cola Rienzi being the grand father of the creation and development of trade unions in T&T and Errol McLeod a working class young man from Pond St. La-Romain represented OWTU very well. Was this a deliberate omission from Shah?

      • Shah has “selective memory” syndrome. A disease where he conveniently recalls event that never happened or could have happen, but he believed it happened.
        Example “I remembered how, after every victory, we leaders would appeal to our members to work harder to justify their salary increases, to be more productive so the enterprises that employed them would be even more successful, thereby ensuring their jobs security and benefits.” This all sounds good on paper but we all know unionized workers in TNT are the worst blood sucking economic agents of disaster. There will sit their lazy azzes and draw big salary. Name me a few successful state enterprise! There maybe one or two but most state enterprise fail miserably and incur huge debts. I leave it there.

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