By Raffique Shah
June 21, 2018
It was on this historic day 45 years ago that I started a new chapter in my life-my involvement in the trade union fraternity, and more specifically, being part of the thousands who made the annual pilgrimage to Fyzabad to pay tribute to pioneers of the labour movement, more specifically Tubal Uriah Butler. From June 19, 1973 until I called halt to marching with my comrades in 2009, I never missed a Labour Day celebration in Fyzabad.
For the uninformed—and when I write historical articles I realise how deficient this country is in its own history—in the aftermath of the events of 1970, Dr Eric Williams decided to declare June 19th a public holiday from 1972. That was embraced by trade unionists and nationalists as one of the small victories they had won from their bitter struggles they had waged, and in some cases even jailed for.
If my memory serves me right, George Weekes, Winston Leonard, Clive Nunez and a few others were released from political detention, their second such incarceration since 1970, on the eve of that first Labour Day in 1972. So there will have been little time to muster a grand celebration in Fyzabad.
In any event, I was still in prison 26 months after being arrested, interestingly, on May 1st, 1970, the international workers’ day and a public holiday that was removed from 1972. Some soldiers had actually begun serving their sentences while Rex Lassalle and I awaited a decision by the Privy Council on the State’s appeal against the local Court of Appeal’s unanimous ruling in our favour, quashing the conviction and sentences of the Court Martial.
That decision would come, again in our favour, on July 26th, 1972, and all the incarcerated soldiers freed on the two ensuing days. With my career as a professional army officer over at age 26, by early 1973 I accepted an invitation to lead an obscure, almost still-born union of sugar cane farmers (not workers). Within months, Winston Leonard and I had infused life into that union (ICFTU), and we proudly took our place arm-in-arm with giants like Weekes, Nunez, Joe Young and others in Fyzabad.
In case you are wondering, Basdeo Panday had not yet arrived: later in 1973, he would be invited by Rampartapsingh and other relics of the then deceased Bhadase Maharaj’s sugar workers’ union (ATSE&FWTU) to become its president-general.
But that’s another intriguing story for another time.
By Labour Day 1974, which was a huge affair—it followed strikes by cane farmers (a first in local history), sugar workers and some oil workers—thousands of participants occupied more than a mile of marching space, militant, exuberant, wallowing in a demonstration of labour-power such as had not been seen since 1937.
The timing, too, could not have been better: the oil boom brought unexpected bounty to the national coffers, as did an even more surprising spike in sugar prices. Panday asked for a 100 percent increase in sugar workers’ dog wages: he got it. The cane farmers’ cry was “one cent per pound” for canes–$22.40 per long ton, up from a paltry $14. Williams gave us $24!! And oil workers would get a hefty increase by 1975.
Labour was booming, solidarity extended across demographic boundaries…those were heady days.
I should explain that pro-Government unions—SWWTU, NUGFWU, CWU, PSA and a few others—stayed far from Fyzabad. Rather, their leaders did, since significant rank and file members marched with us. Panday marched according to his mood: Fyzabad one year, Couva another, even Arima…
I remained faithful to Fyzabad because of its historical significance: it was at Bhola’s yard, near Charlie King Junction, that the police tried to arrest Butler as he addressed striking oil workers—a fatal mistake that backfired badly. The people protected Butler, savaged Corporal Charlie King to death, and put the police in full flight.
The strikes would, within days, spread nationwide, from the wharves to the sugar plantations, cocoa estates to government employees. It crossed the race-divide and sharpened the class struggle. As the authorities hunted for Butler, he was hidden and protected by ordinary people of different races until he decided to surrender and face the consequences.
I knew little about those major events in our history until I ventured into Fyzabad in 1973, and frequently thereafter, certainly every Labour Day. I was lucky to meet several witnesses to the events of 1937 who were alive, kicking, even marching. They adopted me as a son, as a soldier of the never-ending struggle for rights of the oppressed.
For me, Fyzabad is the spiritual headquarters of labour, a workers’ shrine if there is such. It is why I could never agree with unionists who march elsewhere on Labour Day. May Day is still international workers’ day which can be celebrated anywhere.
I need add that I felt increasingly estranged from my comrades when they chose to invite politicians whose only creed is opportunism to pollute the platform at Fyzabad. Worse, they used labour’s pulpit to endorse political parties that see the working classes only as election-fodder.
They seem not to have learnt lessons when they were abandoned after the politicians tasted power, when greed replaced need, when dignity was sacrificed on the altar personal aggrandisement.
I cry for the Fyzabad I knew many moons ago.