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CLASS STRUGGLE IN THE 1960S PART THREE BY DR. GODFREY VINCENT

posted 23 Jul 2019, 08:42 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 23 Jul 2019, 09:10 ]

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. (See Part One and Part Two)

Even before the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) succumbed to internal and external pressures from some government politicians and some trade unionists in the aftermath of the passage of the ISA, it faced a serious crisis in 1964.

On October 5, 1964, the Daily Mirror reported that government had information of a certain trade union leader with communistic tendencies who wanted to gain control of certain industries in the country. The story was obviously directed towards George Weekes who used his position as President of NTUC to assist the sugar workers in their internal struggle to oust their union’s executives.

In the light of this report, Congress requested a meeting with the Prime Minister to verify the allegations; however, Williams denied them a hearing. When the Prime Minister refused to meet with the NTUC executive, it retaliated by boycotting the Tripartite Committee talks that was a follow up to the Tripartite Conference which was held in September 1964.

However, dissensions arose in the NTUC over allegations that George Weekes, President and Eugene Joseph, General Secretary took a unilateral decision to boycott the meeting. Acting upon these allegations, the leadership of All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Workers’ Tr

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 Neoliberalismand 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

ade Union, Amalgamated Workers’ Trade Union (AWU) and the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) withdrew their unions’ membership from the NTUC and organized a rival body, the National Federation of Labor (NFL) in 1964.

The decision of the various leaders to form this new labor body was not an isolated issue. Politically, Bhadase Sagan Maraj, leader of the Sugar workers’ union, W.W. Sutton, leader of the AWU and Carl Tull, leader of the CWU were all opposed to George Weekes’ interference in the sugar workers strike and used Williams’ allegations of communist infiltration in the trade union movement to split the umbrella trade union body.

This became evident when W.W. Sutton, the leader of the National Federation of Labor (NFL) claimed that communists masterminded the sugar workers strike and were the ones bent on using coercion, intimidation, subversion, strikes and violence to plunge the community into chaos and confusion in their attempt to establish a communist totalitarian regime.

It was, therefore, not surprising that when Williams declared the findings of the Mbanefo Commission on the same day he brought the ISA before the House of Parliament. He received full support for this measure from Sutton and Tull in particular.

With Weekes pledging full support for the striking sugar workers, Sutton, the general secretary of the Amalgamated Workers Union (AWU) who disassociated himself from the workers’ strike, signed agreements that denied unmarried female workers maternity leave, joined with employers to discipline militant workers, and called a press conference to give support to the ISA where he openly accused individuals, both inside and outside of the Trades Union Congress, of plotting to overthrow the government.

In addition, Tull and Sutton demonstrated with their respective unions outside the House of Representatives on the same day the House of Representatives debated the ISA. George Weekes was violently struck outside the House of Parliament. Over five hundred ‘project workers’, armed with ice picks, pieces of wood and razors paraded in the Square (Woodford); some pro-PNM ‘bad johns’ paraded with guns in their waist, seen by the police.

Struggle against the Industrial Stabilisation Act. 1965
Members of the Communication Workers Union in particular and other NFL affiliates, led by Carl Tull, were allowed to march in front of Parliament with pro-ISA placards. The ‘Blue Shirts’ of the OWTU and others in opposition to the ISA could not dare picket. An Angostura van parked inside the square gave out free bottles of rum. In any case the police lent a blind eye to any misdemeanor on that day. It was the saddest day in the Labour and Trade Union history in our Country.

In the aftermath of that tragic day in March 1965, Weekes resigned as leader of the NTUC on March 24, 1965. In his letter of resignation Weekes gave a detailed account of the events of the sugar workers strike and the measures the NTUC executives took to intervene in the matter.

Pointing out that he was not willing to compromise his principles of serving in the interest of the working class, Weekes, in closing, declared that he was prepared to lead the OWTU in the struggle even if it meant that the union had to stand by itself and defend the working class.

The pro-PNM allies had succeeded in fracturing the NTUC; therefore, George Weekes had no choice but to regroup and marshal his members within the OWTU because forces opposed to his leadership led by Fabien Lesaldo and the Free Trade Union Group (FTUG) waged an all-out attack on Weekes and the “Rebels.” Additionally, Weekes understood that he not had to only defend the interest of the OWTU but also that of the working class. To this end, he joined forces with like-minded men and women to organize a new political party.

In the aftermath of the political fallout that unfolded with the passage of the Industrial Stabilization Act of 1965, the leaders of the anti-government movement emerged from their isolation and began to seek a political alternative to the PNM. From their perspective, the leaders perceived that that Eric Williams and his supporters appeared to be on a mission to halt the progress made by the radical trade unions as well as continue capitalist development based on Foreign Direct Investment and implement anti-democratic measures.

Lennox Pierre
In order to counteract these developments, C.L.R. James, former editor of the Nation, the PNM’s newspaper, teamed up with George Weekes, Joe Young, Stephen Maharaj, Lennox Pierre, George Bowrin and Jack Kelshall to launch the Political Action Committee (PAC). This committee subsequently became the Workers and Farmers Party which was launched on November 7, 1965 in San Fernando at the Palms Club, one of the OWTU’s official centers.

At the party’s inaugural conference, the members elected Stephen Maharaj, Chairman; C.L.R. James, Secretary and Clive Phill, Treasurer. However, unlike the PNM that was launched with a massive show of grass-roots support, the turnout at the WFP’s launching was rather dismal.

The turnout was low because the main organizers of the event did not perform the necessary ground work to mobilize the oil and sugar workers. Moreover, they thought that C.L.R James would have been a major drawing card because he challenged Eric Williams’ views on party politics. Furthermore, the turnout out was low because a number of people, especially civil servants and teachers were afraid to attend for fear of being seen in the company of alleged communists. This fear was real because they were afraid of losing their jobs.

The large numbers of oil and sugar workers did not actively support the formation of the party that claimed to defend the interests of the working class. This was clearly a disappointment for C.L.R. James and especially for George Weekes who came in for much criticism from the government and business interests for his defense of workers’ interest.

At the launching, the WFP officials focused on the Party’s manifesto and explored strategies on how to convince the working class that a shift of political allegiance from the PNM to the WFP was in their best interest. Joe Young, President-General of the Transport and Industrial Workers’ Trade Union (TIWU), and one of the emerging leaders of the anti-government movement, stated that the objective of the WFP was to mobilize the working people as a class and to challenge the view held by Williams and other members of the PNM
that the Trade Union Movement and the working class should not become directly involved in politics.

Within the new party, some officials expressed the view that C.L.R. James’ break with Williams, the findings of the Mbanefo Commission and the struggle against the ISA were sufficient grounds for the working class to defect en masse from the PNM. However, others noted that it was only the ideologically conscious and disaffected elements of the working class who disagreed with the nationalist aspirations of the PNM and saw the need for a new political vehicle that promoted an alternative political agenda.

In its efforts to directly attract the working class, the WFP’s manifesto advocated a number of ideas designed to appeal to the working class. The manifesto called for the formation of a national oil company but stopped short of outright nationalization of foreign oil companies. Moreover, it emphasized a mixed economy with both a specific role for the state as well as the private sector. In addition, the manifesto called for land distribution of sugar cane lands and less dependence on the foreign sugar companies. The party’s position on the oil industry contradicted the OWTU’s position that advocated nationalization of the industry.

Although the WFP’s nationalization policy on the oil industry contradicted that of the OWTU’s, George Weekes gave his full support to the goals and ideals of the WFP and its leadership. However, this did not mean that the overall membership of the OWTU endorsed and supported the WFP. In an interview with Khafra Kambon, Weekes noted, “…as President General, I knew that I would be in conflict with members of the union who were sympathetic towards the PNM and even the DLP. Nevertheless, I thought this was the best thing to do.” 

Weekes’ show of support for the WFP created tensions between the union’s leadership and some of its members who showed open hostility whenever the leadership attempted to take an avowedly political stand against policies of the PNM government that were inimical to the OWTU’s interest.

This hostility of the general membership to Weekes’ support of the WFP was not surprising since most of its members supported the PNM’s nationalist agenda. For example, Jeremiah Antoine, Assistant Secretary of the OWTU was an active PNM supporter who did not share Weekes’ working-class oriented vision and his support of the WFP. In fact, on the campaign trail, oil workers openly confronted Weekes, opposed his pro-Communists leanings and accused him of aiding the WFP in promoting the interests of East Indians above those of Africans of Trinidad descent.

In spite of these challenges, the WFP attempted to build a coalition based on African and Indian ethnic unity. Nevertheless, there existed deep-seated political suspicions between the Afro-Trinidadian and East Indian working class. However, these social tensions did not prevent George Weekes from declaring himself a WFP candidate for the Point-a-Pierre seat in the 1966 General Elections.

In the build up to the 1966 General Elections, the WFP conducted meetings in various parts of Trinidad, but their activities lacked the political sophistication of the PNM with its well-oiled political machinery. Financially, the WFP possessed meagre resources for its political campaigns and was not in a position to support its candidates. On account of these challenges, the party was no match for the PNM with its effective use of anti-communist propaganda, especially in its campaign in the oil belt where PNM supporters tried to convince the OWTU’s membership of Weeks’ Communist-leaning positions.

In its campaign, the WFP failed to reconcile the contradictions of race and class and sought to present itself as a class- based political party in a country where racial identity continued to be the most significant factor in elections. Furthermore, during its campaigns throughout the countryside, the WFP failed to energize most oil and sugar workers who did not turn out in large numbers to listen to the WFP’s candidates. This poor turnout at the political meetings was not only limited to the rural areas but in the urban areas as well. One commentator observed that, “The Trinidadian masses did not respond to James and his political allies. I remember attending a rally at Woodford Square where James and George Weekes and others spoke. I do not believe there were 50 people present. Some people were laughing openly at “the old man.” Based on the lack of popular support for the WFP, the possibility of winning the elections and the opportunity to change the country’s political landscape appeared unlikely.

In the 1966 Trinidad and Tobago General Election, the WFP contested thirty-five seats except for Tobago West Constituency. C.L.R. James contested the Tunapuna seat, the town of his birth and received 254 votes out of total of 9,540 votes cast. George Weekes ran for the Pointe-a-Pierre Electoral District and lost to Lilias Wight of the Democratic Labour Party. Of the 9,506 votes, he received 471 votes. The PNM triumphed at the polls, winning 24 of the 36 Electoral Districts. The oil workers who lived in places like Pointe-a-Pierre, Plaisance Park and Marabella rejected Weekes as a politician, even though they threw their support behind him as a union leader because they believed that he would defend their interests in the workplace.

The workers rejected Weekes involvement in party politics because they differentiated the roles of trade unions from the political parties, including the PNM. Regarding ‘bread and butter’ issues,’ they wanted a strong, independent labor movement to defend their interest. Politically, a large section of the working class strongly believed that the overall objectives of the PNM government were adequate, even though they disagreed with the government when it made decisions that negatively affected their economic interests.

In the aftermath of the 1966 elections, Weekes felt politically humiliated, and he contemplated not contesting another general elections. Indeed, this was a big political disappointment for him, especially since he faced serious challenges regarding his leadership style within the OWTU. Furthermore, the results of the elections shattered James’ political aspirations and he left the country and took up a teaching job at the Federal City College in Washington, DC, USA. It took another decade for the OWTU to engage in another attempt at building a working-class party.
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