A Labour Day story

By Raffique Shah
June 21, 2021

Raffique ShahWith this country’s history largely unwritten, and in many instances unrecorded, I shan’t be surprised if my column today reads like Greek hieroglyphics to most people.

Many of us have an interest in knowing where we came from, this potpourri of races that confuses us more than foreigners. Our only identification mark, I cite Meer and Fuchs, examining our language from a phonetic perspective, is the sing-song prosody linguists insist we expose when we speak.

Meer and Fuchs do exist, and their study, titled “The Trini Sing-Song: Sociophonetic…” etc etc… was first published last March, exactly three months ago. It so tickled my Trini-to-de-bone-humour-string, I thought I must share it with readers. All I set out to say was that we ignore our history, the men and women who have shaped the past, hence influenced the present, such that we must be unique in having little interest in where we came from and where we are going.

Yesterday, the nation observed Labour Day. True, it was also “lockdown day”, so there was nothing happening on the ground, certainly not at Ground Zero, Fyzabad, where, in 1937, Tubal Uriah Butler confronted the colonial police who had been dispatched by the British governor to arrest him. He appealed to his supporters, a huge crowd of mainly Afro and Indo Trinidadian oil workers assembled to support the strike he had called, “They have come to arrest me…shall I go with them?”

To which the crowd thundered, “No!” Whereupon the workers, especially the women, set upon burly Corporal Charlie King, who was leading the arrest-bid and threw him from upstairs Bhola’s shop, where Butler was, to the rugged ground below. Then, according to eye witnesses, they set Charlie on fire, roasting him as the white police squad leader and his men fled for their lives. The masses would “disappear” Butler, secrete him in their homes, shuffle him around the country for several weeks…until he finally gave himself up and was charged, tried and jailed.

It was a baptism of fire for the labour movement. The junction was renamed “Charlie King Junction”, and an imposing statue of Butler stands proudly over it. Butler, you see, commanded support among all races and classes, except perhaps the white planter class.

Now while this story, which is part of our history, has been told numerous times, and appears in several television documentaries and printed documents and books, I don’t know how many people know it, know its importance to our history. It was out of that struggle that trade unions were legitimised. That particular strike, which spread across the country, from the sugar estates to the port, saw workers win increased wages and salaries. Butler would end up spending from 1937 to 1945 in prison (the last six years as a possible threat to national security during World War II). Adrian Cola Rienzi, given name Krishna Deonarine, a San Fernando lawyer who represented Butler, registered both the OWTU and the sugar workers’ union, and led them while Butler chilled.

By the time he emerged from prison and Rienzi offered him a petty job in the union as an organiser, Butler realised he had been conned. He could do nothing about it but seek revenge in limited-franchise elections set for 1948 in nine constituencies. He however foolishly went after Albert Gomes in PoS North—and lost. He would return in 1950, the first full adult franchise elections, contest St Patrick West, and register a huge victory. In fact, candidates of his party, Butler Party (what else?), won four of 15 seats at stake, the most for any group but the independent candidates. Butler’s swan song was in 1956 when Dr Williams and the PNM machine went into action.

Because of the way the legislative council was structured, with 24 seats contested, a party needed to win 15 seats to form the government. Counted in those 15 were two nominees of the governor.

The PNM won 13, so they needed two more. Dr Williams could have turned to Butler, whose party had won two—his St Patrick and Stephen Maharaj’s Ortoire/Moruga. Bhadase Maraj’s PDP won four, which signalled the start of the great divide. Other minor parties (PNP, TLP) won one each, and two independents, Lionel Seukeran and A Alexis, won theirs.

Instead, Dr Williams solicited, and got, the governor’s nominees, thus ending Butler’s political career, and any hope of an alliance between the PNM and labour. What had reignited labour’s hopes of sharing or holding the reins of power post-1937 (the beginning was at the turn of the 20th century with Jim Barrat and others—but that’s another story!), ended with the PNM and the PDP carving the country into two slices, most times closely inequal which has left us in this mess we are in today.

One thought on “A Labour Day story”

  1. Mr. Shah,

    Firstly, “GREEK hieroglyphics”, never existed. Kemetian (Egyptian) script, was referred to by the greeks as “Hieroglyphics”…while the word “Hieroglyphics” is greek, the kemetians (egyptians) themselves didn’t call their script that, they referred to it as Medu Netjer.

    Facts about hieroglyphics | National Geographic Kids
    https://www.natgeokids.com/za/discover/history/egypt/hieroglyphics-uncovered/

    https://www.worldhistory.org/Egyptian_Hieroglyphs/

    Also, did Butler really have “indo” supporters, or just racist opportunists?

    Indian leaders sold their souls – Pt I
    http://www.triniview.com/articles/indianleaders.html

    Stop telling stories about our history
    https://www.guardian.co.tt/article-6.2.411445.339bf9edb3

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