Where we stand‎ > ‎News & Comment‎ > ‎

CLASS STRUGGLE IN THE 1960S PART ONE by Dr. Godfrey Vincent

posted 10 Jun 2019, 10:24 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 10 Jun 2019, 14:03 ]

In 2020, there are plans afoot to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the “Black Power” uprising in Trinidad and Tobago. the organizers are to be commended for taking time off their busy schedule to organize seminars, symposia, fora and cultural events.

While the events of 1970 should be commemorated, we must not engage in nostalgia; but rather use the events as a historical guide that will help us understand the present crisis that confronts the nation and utilize new tools and analyses to educate and mobilize the generations of Trinidad and Tobago’s citizens who didn’t share in that experience. 

Moreover, we must understand that 1970 was not the beginning of a struggle but part of a protracted struggle that took new life in the 1960s and culminated in the 1979 Grenada Revolution.  Therefore, this essay, which will be presented in three parts seeks to broaden our understanding of this historical trajectory, beginning with the struggle against the Industrial Stabilization Act of 1965.

Industrial workers, especially oil workers, became disenchanted with the PNM government’s economic policies in the aftermath of the 1961 elections, which the PNM won. James Millette, one of the founding members of the New World Group, noted that the broad support for the party which had propelled it into power in 1956 had dissipated in the post-independence period and by 1965 it was clear that a specific, articulate, radical and increasingly militant opposition was emerging.

This decrease in popular support can be attributed to several factors. First, by 1965, some segments of the population had become fascinated with Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, especially given the fact that the Cuban people had repelled the U.S. marines at Playa Girón. This heroic defense of their nation became widespread news and part of the political conversations in homes, schools, centers of recreation and workplaces in Trinidad and Tobago and the entire Caribbean.
However, in 1965, at a public meeting in San Fernando, Trinidad, Williams, warned the public of the dangers of Communism and Socialism and denounced the Cuban revolution by asserting that Castro destroyed the Cuban economy because of his gover

Dr. Godfrey Vincent is an Associate professor of history At Tuskegee University; Co-Coordinator of the Integrative Public Policy and Development. 

He is the co-Editor of Contended Perspectives of Neoliberalism and has published in Journal of Labor and Society. Dr. Vincent is completing his manuscript called Rebels at the Gate: The Oilfields Workers Trade Union in the Era of George Weekes.

Dr. Godfrey Vincent is a longstanding correspondent on this website

nment’s experimentation with Communism. Despite Williams’ efforts to denounce Socialism and Communism, these ideologies became part of the political discourse in Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean.

Secondly, dissent with the PNM came from the New World Group  that was formed by Caribbean intellectuals from Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago and also included scholars from the Caribbean Diasporas in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

Some of the prominent scholars included Lloyd Best, Khafra Kambon, James Millette, Walter Rodney and Clive Thomas. This group became the vanguard for a new Caribbean vision that articulated an independent Caribbean thought that sought to free the region from Euro-centric notions of economics, politics and social and cultural development. These scholars became critics of the Arthur Lewis’ model of development (industrialisation by invitation) which they viewed as creating greater dependency in the Caribbean.

Thirdly, Williams’ expulsion of C.L.R. James and other progressive elements from the PNM also created the conditions for the growing radicalism that had emerged in the early post-independence period. Even though Marxist thought had been around since the 1930s, it only proliferated around a small circle of urban intellectuals and revolutionary workers like Dr. David Pitt, John La Rose, Lennox Pierre (see John La Rose's tribute), Jack Kelshall, Dr. Patrick Solomon of the West Indian Independence Party (WIIP) Jim Barrette and Elma Francois of the Negro Welfare Association (NWA), George Weekes and Joe Young. However, by 1963, the Socialist ideology began to make new inroads among leaders and activists in the country, especially in the OWTU when George Weekes took over the leadership of the union.

Fourthly, the Civil Rights Protest Movement in the United States forced Trinidad and Tobago citizens to take a second look at the internal dynamic of racism in the country. Even though the country had achieved political independence on the one hand, the practice of racial discrimination was very prevalent in the society. This was evident in the oil and sugar industries where white expatriates occupied the top supervisory and managerial jobs which paid them higher salaries and other benefits at the expense of the Trinidad and Tobago citizens who were as qualified to perform in those positions.

Moreover, racism was also evident in the education system where the children of the local “white” population attended different primary schools than those attended by “Afro and Indo” children. Furthermore, discrimination against the poor remained prevalent despite attempts by the government to address the issue. Persons of the lower class were still at a disadvantage even though some educational and economic opportunities were created to alleviate their socio-economic conditions.

Moreover, in certain areas of Trinidad and Tobago, like St. Clair, Federation Park, Ellerslie Park, and Champs Elysees residential segregation was practiced and were homes to the tiny white elite that dominated the local businesses. These practices continued in the post-independence period and aided in the creation of antigovernment sentiments that sought to challenge what they saw as the maintenance of White privilege at the expense of Black people.

Image result for eric williams
Dr. Eric Williams
Given these developments, the objections to the PNM government’s economic policies had become more vocalized in 1965 and created the conditions for oil and sugar workers to unite and stage more industrial unrest in the country. Based on these developments, it became quite clear that in his efforts to retain popular support among the electorate, Williams used the meet the people tours and the organization of the Best Village Program to mobilize the party’s base to counteract any radical threat to his government’s economic agenda. Why did the PNM government in 1965 resort to legislation that sought to restrict the rights of Trade Unions?

When Eric Williams became PNM’s political leader, he changed the dominant approach to party building by breaking with the established paradigm of union-based political parties. In most of the Caribbean islands, trade unions were very instrumental in the creation of political parties. However, Williams went against this grain by creating a party that did not have a trade union base.

In Inward Hunger: The Education of a Prime Minister, He stated that the PNM learned from the experiences of the trade union-dominated British Labor Party, and the PNM, instead, granted trade unions affiliated status without granting them bloc votes that prevailed in the British Labor Party. By adopting this position, he ensured that his party’s policies on important economic and political issues would not be subjected to scrutiny and debates from powerful trade unions like the OWTU.

This position, however, did not mean that Eric Williams and the PNM did not court the trade union movement. An examination of the trade union movement during the period showed that labor leaders such as Carl Tull (Communication Workers Union – CWU), W.W. Sutton (Amalgamated Workers Union) and John Hackshaw (National Union of Government Employees) were PNM members.

In the days leading up to the 1961 General elections, Williams and the PNM organized a march with the support of the PNM controlled unions to counter the march of the Civil Service Association that the PNM perceived was organized by the opposition, the Democratic Labor Party. However, by 1965, the PNM government faced a different opposition that was led by the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU), Transport and Industrial Workers Union and a section from the Sugar Workers Union.

In 1965, the PNM led government launched its Second Five-Year Plan (1964-1968) which formed part of the planning process that the government pledged in its 1956 manifesto. With regards to the government’s objectives, the plan gave preference to the development of economic infrastructural projects like electricity, agriculture and Highway construction.

However, like the first plan of 1958-1962, the government maintained its underlying economic philosophy of private-sector led growth with the government providing the framework. Williams maintained that, “The country therefore has no choice when it comes to the question of attracting investment, whether foreign or local, into our economic development.” This statement showed that Williams had great faith in the model of Industrialization by Invitation which also was supported by Sir Arthur Lewis, the St. Lucian Nobel prize winner. By giving full support to this type of economic development, Williams was not willing to allow any group of workers or their representatives to sabotage the government’s economic thrust.

Addressing the issue of Economic Instability as it related to industrial unrest, Williams noted: ‘The third lesson that these events teach us in the context of the Reality of Independence concerns the danger to the nation from economic instability. A nation as small as ours cannot really afford 250 strikes in one year representing a loss of wages to workers [of] 41% and a loss in government revenue of 4.4 million. When these strikes spread over our major economic activities, such as sugar, oil, transport, electricity and construction, we were getting closer and closer to economic suicide.”

Williams did not lose sight of the strike actions taken especially by the OWTU and the sugar workers from the ATSEFWTU. In addressing this situation, he had these two unions on his radar, and threatened that his government would take legislative action if they did not resolve their disputes. Look out for Part Two soon.
Gerry Kangalee,
10 Jun 2019, 13:21
Gerry Kangalee,
10 Jun 2019, 13:02