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

posted 23 Jun 2019, 09:46 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 28 Jun 2019, 18:22 ]

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)

Concerned as what they saw as the government’s inability to control the trade union movement and stabilize the investment climate, the Trinidad Guardian, in a 1963 editorial entitled Trade Unions must Behave made the call for legislation to check the power of trade unions.

The editorial maintained: “A law is needed at once which would enforce a cooling off period before any strike can be called; which would provide a court penalty for violators. The law should also laid down that where agreement cannot be reached by normal bargaining methods, an Industrial tribunal possessing powers to enforce its decisions would take over. We can think of no other way to save this country from

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

 Trade Union vandals.”

Traditionally, the Guardian has been the mouth piece of the local business class and it was clear that its editorial spared no attempt to label the OWTU and the radical trade unions as instigators of the spate of industrial unrest. However, despite its plea for calm, the workers became more emboldened in their actions.

During 1965, the government of Trinidad and Tobago faced an unprecedented state of industrial unrest. The atmosphere was charged because the sugar workers and their militant representatives not only wanted to join the OWTU; they also declared their intentions to stage a massive march and protest in Port of Spain on March 11, 1965.

Additionally, the workers at Lock Joint and Federation Chemicals went on strike, and the Civil Service Association engaged in work-stoppages. These strikes were a continuation of the workers’ militancy that begun in 1964 when the Bus workers staged a fifty-six days strike over a new collective bargaining agreement. In addition, to the strikes and other forms of protest, unemployment became a major factor for a number of school leavers who had taken opportunity of the government’s free secondary education program. Many of them, predominantly Afro-Trinidadians found great difficulty in securing jobs in the public and private sectors.

This unemployment situation became a major concern for the government, given the state of industrial unrest that affected the nation’s industrial relations climate. More importantly, Prime Minister Williams paid particular attention to the developments in the oil and sugar industries because of its political and economic implications.

Governor General Sir Solomon Hochoy, evoked the Emergency Powers Ordinance of 1947, and declared a state of emergency on March 9, 1965. 
He recognized that prolonged strikes in these two industries not only posed a threat to his government but also had the capability of jeopardizing the economy. It is against this backdrop that the government declared a state of emergency to break the sugar workers strike. Acting on behalf of the government, Governor General Sir Solomon Hochoy, evoked a section of the constitution, the Emergency Powers Ordinance of 1947, and declared a state of emergency on March 9, 1965.

The declaration of the state of emergency restricted the freedom of movement and banned public meetings in the sugar belt areas. In effect, it literally limited contact between oil and sugar workers for the duration it was in effect. To justify the government’s actions on declaring the state of emergency, Williams claimed that C.L.R. James, working in tandem with other subversive elements, instigated the strike in order to achieve unity between the oil and sugar workers.

Williams used former OWTU President General John Rojas’ testimony to the Mbanefo
Image result for clr james
During the 1965 state of emergrency, CLR James was placed under house arrest and confined  to Barataria.
Commission into subversive activities to make the allegation that C.LR. James engaged in subversive activities against his government. Thus, when the government enforced the State of Emergency, the police placed James under house arrest and confined him to Barataria. Following the State of Emergency, the government took further measures to curb the strikes by tabling a bill in the House of Parliament.

On March 18, 1965, the government introduced to the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago the Industrial Stabilization Bill (ISA). The legislation called for the establishment of an Industrial Court that had jurisdiction to hear and determine trade disputes; to register industrial agreements and to hear and determine matters relating to the registration of such agreements; to hear and determine complaints relating to the price of goods and commodities; to hear and determine any complaint brought in accordance with this Act as well as matters as may from time to time be referred to under this Act.

In addition to the above functions, the Bill empowered the Court to establish an office of economic and industrial research for the purpose of compiling and analyzing data that would be of relevance to the Court. Furthermore, the Bill gave the Court the power to arbitrate labor disputes, impose penalties and enforce orders and awards.

Popularly known as the ISA, the government rushed through the Bill in both Houses of Parliament. The debates lasted two days from March 18-19, 1965, and the Bill became an Act on March 20, 1965. In his defense of this piece of legislation, Williams declared: “Anything therefore to establish order amid this disorder, to substitute reason for passion and judicial determination for the anger of the workers, however legitimate, is a net gain for the society and a protection for the workers themselves. 

It is from this point of view that the mass of the population as a whole has welcomed the Industrial Stabilisation Bill. The workers do not lose wages, the country does not lose essential revenue, the Nation’s social life is not disrupted, and none of these is achieved at the expense of the workers cause. Instead of fighting for their rights by a strike, they argue for the rights in a Court. And the Law quite properly prescribes penalties not only for unauthorized strikes, or for violation of the procedure concerning strikes, it also imposes penalties on persons supporting or promoting or financing a strike contrary to the provisions of the Bill.

Image result for eric williams
Prime Minister Dr. Eric Williams
Ironically, in 1960, Williams defended the rights of the trade unions to initiate strike action to defend their interest. Faced with a crisis that not only threatened his political rule but also the government’s industrialization thrust, Williams retreated from his previous populist position and used the ISA to subdue and restrain the radical elements of the trade union movement and constrain wages.

One of the major concerns of the government was that wages in specific sectors of employment like oil and sugar were consistently rising in relation to other sectors of the economy. Williams noted that between the years 1956 to 1963 wages in the oil and sugar industries increased by 72% and 83% respectively. In its attempt to adjust this trend, Williams argued that in order to protect the national interest and the interest of workers, it was necessary that the government passed the Bill to protect both wages and prices.

Using a Comparative analysis of Income policies to make his argument, Williams examined and compared the wages and prices policies of the Communists countries, the Advanced Western Countries and Underdeveloped Countries.

Arguing that the government had a responsibility to maintain competitive wages and prices in order for Trinidad and Tobago manufacturers to compete in the international market, Williams compared the retail price index of Trinidad and Tobago to that of several countries. Given that the Arthur Lewis Model of Industrialization by Invitation was central in his thrust to modernize the society, Williams used the data to give assurances to the local and foreign investors that the passage of the ISA was an attempt to regulate wages and prices in the national interest that ensured high rates of returns to investment and the achievement of high rates of economic growth.

However, the OWTU countered Williams’ claims on the payment of high wages to oil and sugar workers. In an address to the Inter-
OWTU President General George Weekes
American University of Puerto entitled Why the ISA is not good for Trinidad and Tobago OWTU President General George Weekes contended that sugar workers employed as laborers received $4.00 US per day for working four or five days bi-weekly. In the oil industry, his data showed the oil companies paid laborers $5.00 US per day while skilled craftsmen received $8.00 US per day. Comparatively, in the United States, Weekes’ figures showed US oil companies paid laborers $22.00 US and skilled workers $31.00 US respectively.

Commenting on the ISA and its effects on the Trade Union Movement, Weekes stated that, “…clearly this Act, expressive of Government coercion will cause our trade union movement to wither and die if we do not fight for it. For it strikes at the very roots of the existence of unionism and this is a plant which in Trinidad is still relatively young.” Weekes understood what was at stake but also knew that the government had the support of some prominent members of the trade union movement. 

(Look out for Part Three soon)