Rebels at the Gates

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
November 21, 2023

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeTwo months ago, the Center on Law, Equality and Race (CLEAR) at Northeastern University School of Law invited me to comment on Dr Godfrey Vincent’s book, Rebels at the Gates: The OWTU in the Era of George Weekes. I accepted the invitation because of the importance of Weekes and the OWTU (the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union) in the labour and political life of the island. This event took place on Friday.

Dr Vincent possesses a stellar career, having received his Master’s and doctoral degrees from the New School for Social Research in New York and Morgan State University, respectively. He is active in several academic organisations and is an associate professor at Wilberforce University in Ohio.

Dr Vincent dedicated his book to several people, one of whom was Vernon de Leon, my very good friend. As an enterprising journalist-scholar, I contacted de Leon to get an insight into Dr Vincent, of whom I knew nothing. He responded: “I became acquainted with Professor Vincent on OWTU strike camps during the 1980s (a period of industrial relations upheavals); during the Grenada Revolution, as well as the publicity around activities around Lech Walesa who became the first democratically elected president of Poland. These activities helped us to develop a working class consciousness.”

Rebels at the Gates is a modest book with many testimonies, some of which are well done and rather edifying. However, I felt the book should have been placed in a deeper historical context that gives a reader a better sense of the tradition out of which Weekes and the OWTU emerged, especially when it says he wished “to add to the historiography of the labour movement in T&T and by extension the larger Caribbean”. The testimonies of Joe Young, David and James Millette, and Donna Coombs-Montrose, “the Chief Female Servant of the OWTU”, were of enormous interest.

Dr Vincent draws on Dr Susan Craig-James, a distinguished sociologist, who argues that “the wave of strikes in the English-speaking region were systematic attempts by Caribbean people to shake off their imperialist masters”.

The testimonies of individuals who participated in making the OWTU are supposed to enhance the democratic tendency that existed in the union. In doing so, Dr Vincent followed the example of EP Thompson’s path-breaking work, The Making of the English Working Class (1963).

Dr Vincent begins his study with what he calls the first “decisive clash” between the working people and the “neo-colonial system” in 1919 when there was “the first general strike and insurrection in T&T”.

I would have gone back to 1834 when the ex-slaves dropped their tools and other instruments of labour and bargained for wages. That is where the first struggle between labour and the colonial powers began.

Brinsley Samaroo supported this position. He argued that in 1839, “there was a strike by a large number of the colony’s Negro workers who demanded a 100 per cent increase in their daily wages of 2s.2d per day. Even though the strike was put down and the demand refused, the planters found that large numbers of Negroes were unwilling to work for 2s.2d per day”.

In 1849, there was a massive rebellion in Port of Spain when over a quarter of T&T’s population stormed the Legislative in support of the women who protested the cutting of their hair and their treatment at the Royal Gaol. This rebellion was led by women workers who took on the colonial authorities when the men were afraid or reluctant to do so.

The Trinidad Workingmen’s Association (TWA) was founded in 1897 to promote social awareness among African people and succeeded in getting wages increased for dockworkers. Although it had a chequered history, CLR James says the TWA “was responsible directly or indirectly for the shorter hours of employment in many branches of labour, particularly in wine and provision shops; for preventing employers paying wages to employees in liquor establishments; for the establishment of an Agricultural Bank, and for the introduction of Workingmen’s Compensation Laws”.

Rebels at the Gates says that “from the inception, the union exhibited a radical tradition that continued under Weekes’s leadership”, and claims he and his new “Rebel” team viewed themselves as part of a new grassroots movement that rose up to challenge PNM’s socio-economic independence paradigm. The testimonies are meant to support that position.

Dr Vincent also claims that Dr Williams captured the national imagination and made it difficult for other social movements like the anti-government movement to compete with his vision of a new type of nationalism. He says “PNM was able to achieve hegemony by polarising a nationalist consensus ideology that advanced its own agenda by keeping the labour movement divided, promoting ethnic divisions between the Afro and Indo populace”. I disagree with these positions.

Dr Vincent says that from 1962 to 1987, deep division occurred in the OWTU. In 1986, Weekes felt that union was disintegrating because several branches were dysfunctional, the union lacked the discipline, efficiency and motivation of the past years. It would have been helpful if Dr Vincent told us how culpable the union’s executive was in creating its own falling from grace.

Dr Vincent, however, has written a good book which we should read. It helps us better understand our labour history and the rise of this important man and his union.