Labour Day nostalgia

By Raffique Shah
June 26, 2024

Raffique ShahI must confess that I feel nostalgic every year when Labour Day comes around. I wasn’t there in 1972 when June 19 was first declared a national holiday. The government of Dr Eric Williams had conveniently avoided recognition of the significance of June 19 to the history of labour and the country as a whole.

Most people who know anything about the significance of that date will know it was when Tubal Uriah Butler, who is seen as the father of radical labour, triggered a national strike by asking a large crowd of workers assembled in Fyzabad for a meeting if he should subject himself to being arrested by Police Corporal Charlie King, a powerfully stupid man who brandished a pair of handcuffs and the arrest warrant.

The crowd responded with a deafening, “No!” King persisted. Upstairs Bhola’s shop he attempted to arrest Butler, but he was savaged by workers and lay dead downstairs the building, not far from the junction named for him.

I am nostalgic because I miss the camaraderie that existed among radical labour luminaries in that early period. I am not being judgmental of labour as it stands today when some leaders stand on the platform and openly genuflect to politicians as if they were champions of the never-ending fight for reasonable levels of compensation and improved working conditions.

Organised trade unions have a relatively short history in Trinidad and Tobago. But their history in Britain is a long one on which those in British colonies like ours patterned their structures, their approach to capital, and the employer class, and how they treat with and are treated by the captains of industry and politicians in power and not in power.

Dr Williams in his day did not have the experience and shop-floor history that could have made his interaction with unionists less awkward than they seemed to be. I have long held the view that Williams’s early life was spent in middle-class seclusion. This was a feature of the aspiring Afro and Indo upper classes. In his case he was undoubtedly a bright student but, as he grew older, his keepers, meaning his family and high-ranking academics, helped chart the lives of their brilliant sons and daughters such as Eric Williams from Woodbrook, towards leadership of the country.

Fast forward to Williams at Oxford University on a scholarship. There he encountered like-minded non-Caucasians who were not merely attending Ivy League colleges but, like him, they were being prepared to govern their countries when they returned home. For them, the unionist types were pests who needed to be controlled. Nothing more, nothing less. When he became the prime minister he probably never thought he’d ever have to deal with such people in his life. In reality, he had to interact with them. That accounts for the presence in the upper reaches of the PNM of men and women who had grown up living among the militants and ideologues, as well as the grassroots who could groom the PM to converse with influential leaders and managers in our society.

Among trade unionists many had been drafted into the orbits of international ideologies. The most prominent of these were branches of the AFL-CIO in America and the Trade Union Congress in Britain. The Russians were there, of course; the left and the right wings in the trade union movement were identifiable and they accounted for the yawning gaps in the labour movement.

In the early Labour Day activities in Fyzabad, large mainly North-based unions were conspicuously absent. They did not mix with the likes of Joe Young (TIWU), George Weekes (OWTU) and leaders such as Lyle Townsend (CWU) and your humble scribe Raffique Shah (president of the largest cane farmers union). I found this situation rather unusual. I could be called radical and I like being dubbed a revolutionary. I was not keen on marching with or dining with the likes of Carl Tull, Nathaniel Critchlow (NUGFW) and Ferdie Ferreira—the man whose influence was quite the opposite of his diminutive size, Francis Mungroo (SWWTU) and others who would all seem as being close with the ruling PNM. We would inevitably meet later in their life and my career.

Ivan Williams, on the other hand, was quite a different story. He was reputed to be one of Eric Williams’s closest aides in all the difficult urban housing settlements/developments that were notoriously branded crime hotspots from way back in the 1970s, maybe even before that. Ivan and Ferdie were the two PNM heavyweights who kept those communities in check. I never really got to know Ferdie well. He seemed to have me as someone to avoid. Ivan, on the other hand, was larger than life in many ways. I shall return to this unfinished story soon.

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