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posted 12 Dec 2013, 10:42 by Gerry Kangalee
Point Fortin and the 1970’s


It was a sunny, breezy day in Point Fortin in early 1970! I spotted Michael of whom I had heard so much. I
approached him, and we immediately began a conversation, which resulted in Michael being introduced to my parents at our home in Point Fortin. To put it bluntly, since that day my life had changed significantly and fundamentally.


Michael at that time was the leader of the Young Power Movement, a movement which I readily joined and henceforth became a social and political activist without even knowing it under the guidance of Comrade Michael Als.


Michael had always been a community builder and organizer. Our group in Point Fortin populated mainly by unemployed persons, was encouraged to engage in the manufacture of handicraft using simple materials like coconuts, bamboo and sea shells. We sold the stuff  to the then Tourist Board and I remember eagerly awaiting the return of those who had travelled to Port of Spain because they would have some small change to share with the members.


Michael was arrested in Point Fortin for breaking the emergency regulations when he attempted to hold a political meeting and a crowd gathered to hear him. He was promptly thrown into a Black Maria, and carried to the Siparia courts, where the various charges were laid against him.


During those early years of the 1970’s Michael led a struggle against the Dunlop company which had been given a ten year monopoly on the manufacture of tyres under the Arthur Lewis model of industrialization by invitation.


Dunlop promptly proceeded to exploit both the consumer and the workers who they employed on a contract labour system. I remember marching along with Michael and the workers led by OWTU. We defied the police who attempted to stop the demonstration: on one occasion daring them to shoot us when they cocked their rifles on bended knees at Frisco Junction in Point Fortin.


Michael soon reformed the Young Power Movement into the Youth Forces and Working Class Movement which took on a decidedly socialist ideological orientation and I became perhaps his youngest lieutenant.


Michael was literally fearless. I use as an example the decision to carry an anti PNM meeting of young Power into Laventille. Michael and Raymond Pallackdharrysingh who became a man of the cloth, went into Laventille in the heights of PNM power and lambasted Eric Williams.

The people were shocked. One community leader said, “ah doh agree with the man, but he real brave, he over brave”. At that time no other political party than the PNM dared to even think about going into the heartland of PNM power.


Many may not know that Michael led a march in the 1970’s with Councillor Medford Colley from Point Fortin to Whitehall and climbed a flag pole there and put up the Young Power flag. Yes he was brave and daring. But he was like this because he had an immense belief in what he was doing and he also had a tremendous commitment to the cause.


The Teaching Days


It was Michael who invited me to apply for a position as a secondary school teacher at St. Martin’s Girls High School in Belmont where he had been employed. So in 1974, I joined him at that school.


Michael was a brilliant teacher; he had hitherto been teaching the masses and members of the various organizations with which he came into contact; now he was imparting academic knowledge to children based in urban Trinidad dealing with all the challenges which this presented.


He was a successful teacher and when we began to organize bank workers a bit later, many of his ex –students were able to assist in that process. He left about a year after, to carry the struggle to the capitalist employers in the banks.


Bank Union Days


In those days the employers in the finance sector practised discrimination in employment against workers of black complexion. Maternity Leave was unheard of and so too was overtime payments.


It was Michael more than anyone else through the establishment of collective agreements by means of free collective bargaining who established employment protection by setting standards in terms and conditions for finance sector workers in Trinidad and Tobago.  


The workers in the finance sector, media sector and indeed the entire service sector owe an immense debt to Michael Als. Nearly every one advised that Michael was a crazy man to leave his good teaching job to unionise bank workers. They said it could never be done. But he did it.


The big boys in the banks spread all kinds of rumours against us including the false accusation that Comrade George Weekes was funding us. Nothing was further from the truth. They did not know that Michael, Mario and I were living on a diet of bananas and peanuts and in those formative years, we had a good meal when we handled a matter for a worker who showed their appreciation by providing a decent lunch.

Michael spent thousands of dollars of his own funds in order to finance the early operations of the Bank Workers Trade Union, which became the Bank and General Workers Union and then the Banking, Insurance and General Workers Union. Michael was a natural organizer and an expert mobiliser who demanded from all his associates great discipline and commitment in doing the people’s work as he used to say.


He perfected the art of networking always maintaining a broadmindedness which allowed him to mingle freely with almost every shade of political opinion which existed within the progressive movement.


Bank and General as we were then referred to seconded Michael to work as General Secretary of the Council of Progressive Trade Unions. He was responsible along with comrades such as Wade Mark and Cecil Paul in forging a unification of the two existing labour federations and so was born the National Trade Union Centre.


Michael was a revolutionary who worked for the ideals of fundamental change; he abhorred capitalist exploitation. Michael was a man who sought no accolades. He gave respect to all and was respected by all whether they agreed with his methods or not. I have learnt a great deal from him and he once told me that the employer will not respect you unless you are able to stand up to them and carry the struggle directly to them.


He was a voracious reader and through this medium, Michael became a self taught individual and an intellectual giant of great standing. He organized the first anti-imperialist conference in Trinidad bringing together many progressive organizations in the Caribbean and Latin America. Michael also participated in the local anti-apartheid movement along with some of us in the trade union movement, but more particularly the OWTU, BIGWU and TIWU at a time when Comrade. Mandela was incarcerated at Robben Island.


I recall the many anti-apartheid meetings which were called at the OWTU’s office in Port of Spain but I cannot recall the presence of many who today have jumped the bandwagon boldly singing praises to our African hero. It is perhaps significant that Michael left this earth within the same twenty four hour period as Nelson Mandela. I am certain that they will both find a comfortable resting place at a place specially reserved for those who have genuinely and selflessly contributed to the struggle for equity and justice for all the people.


Michael’s song is ended but his melody will linger on. When you are born you cry and the world rejoices. When you die you rejoice and the world cries. A friend may be taken away but the memory of a friendship can never be taken away.


Michael remains my, friend, my brother and my comrade. You have fought the good fight! You have made an immense contribution to the working people and to Trinidad and Tobago. Rest in peace my comrade and perhaps we will see again at a place that is better than the one where we met and shared experiences worthy of a meaningful lifetime. I thank you all.