By Raffique Shah
June 22, 2013
I MONITORED this year’s Labour Day celebrations with mixed feelings. I was sorry to have missed the annual pilgrimage to the shrine of organised labour for the fourth year, but that’s another story. I felt a deep sense of nostalgia, a longing for the glory days when we rocked Fyzabad with solidarity that stretched for miles. Now, I see labour-power diminish before my eyes, something I thought would never happen in my lifetime.
I mean no disrespect to the current crop of labour leaders, some of whom carry the spirit of yesteryear with pride and courage against the immense odds that neo-liberalism has imposed on workers of the world. Decline in union membership is a global phenomenon that the trade union movement unwittingly spawned. As the unions won improved benefits and conditions for their membership, they boosted the ranks of the middle classes that now cuss the organisations that created them.
Today’s middle classes enjoy decent lifestyles only because earlier generations of worker-warriors fought bitter, sometimes bloody, struggles in pursuit of betterment. In a society whose economic and social genesis lay in slave labour and bound-coolie production modes, it took leaders with immense courage to stand up and fight for a better day for themselves and a brighter future for their progeny.
Such struggle started long before Cipriani, Rienzi and Butler rose to prominence. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association (TWA), whose leaders remain unrecognised, coordinated strikes across the country to break out of the bondage of slave-wages. They fought real battles, engaging “government boots” on behalf of waterfront workers, agricultural workers, and later oilfields workers, from as far back as in 1919. These bloody skirmishes would recur in 1937, and more recently in the 1960s and 1970s.
The victories they won helped to promote better living conditions that facilitated upward mobility that gave birth to the middle classes. I was part of the more recent history of this eternal saga. In 1973, Basdeo Panday and I both plunged into that struggle, he with the sugar workers, I with the cane farmers. George Weekes, who led the OWTU from 1962, had already fought many bitter battles on behalf of his members and workers in general. Weekes was a giant of a leader swimming in a sea of sycophants who easily sold out their membership for a seat in the Senate or some other Government appointment.
When we three and the mighty Joe Young (TIWU) joined hands in 1974 to give birth to the ULF (a labour federation, not yet the party), people’s living conditions, though much improved from 1937, were still relatively primitive, more so in the rural communities and urban slums. Clay houses with thatched roofs and latrine pits were commonplace in districts such as Barrackpore, Penal, Lengua, Debe, Felicity, Bejucal and many more. Electricity was enjoyed by a minority, and simple comforts such as foam mattresses, fridges and television sets were beyond the means of the masses.
In 1975, after a full year’s struggle for 100 per cent increases in wages for sugar workers, a similar increase in the price paid to cane farmers, and almost 50 per cent increase in wages for oil workers, we won! We were lucky, eh. The world market price of sugar spiked to unprecedented levels in 1974, while the first “oil shock” also sent oil prices booming at around the same time.
Dr Williams, no doubt weary of the war we had waged for two years, and buoyed by huge increases in revenue, agreed to most of our demands. Almost overnight, the influx of increased incomes into the aforementioned depressed communities changed people’s lives for the better. Over the next two decades, with union-driven benefits continuing, the faces of these communities, and by extension much of Trinidad and Tobago, changed forever.
Because of these developments and government’s expansion of the education system, whatever its flaws, the ranks of the educated expanded, professionals emerged, technicians were trained, and the middle classes grew almost exponentially. Thing is, most of these people were unaware of the critical roles the trade unions played in taking them beyond boundaries that their grandparents and parents could have imagined.
In fact, those who benefitted most from the struggles of the trade unions are the ones who today hate unionists with a passion. Listening to them lambaste unionists, blaming the comrades for all the ills in the country, sickens me. It’s a hell of an indictment when people do not know their history, not even their immediate past.
Trade unions as an institution played a pivotal role in paving the path to progress. True, there are some quacks and invalids at the leadership level—always have been. Too, trade unions must adapt to meet the requirements of a modern working environment in which the demand for skilled labour and the advent of advanced technology have depleted the ranks of organised labour.
While the ungrateful middle classes wallow in a false sense of security (they’d better pray there is no economic depression!), the working poor, those who are under-employed in CPEP and URP, contract labour and similar irregular programmes, are the slaves and bound-coolies of today. Numbering tens of thousands, they barely survive in a country where opulence is very visible, where the leftovers from feasts can satiate the hunger of many empty bellies.
Trade unions and Government should note the unlikely sparks that have lit the flames of protest in seemingly successful countries like Brazil, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus. We are not immune to such eruptions, what with the growing gap between rich and poor, the violence that has become part of our culture, and worst of all, the proliferation of illegal firearms.
We do not want to walk that bloody road, none of us. We can only avert it, though, through responsible leadership in trade unions and in the political arena. Labour leaders must rise to this challenge.