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posted 11 Jun 2021, 18:37 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 13 Jun 2021, 19:32 ]
The year 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of George Weekes, the trade unionist who, probably, did the most to uplift the material conditions of workers, oilworkers in particular, and gave 
them confidence that they were entitled to the benefits of modern civilisation and made it an article of faith that the working class must and will hold the reins of power. To mark this important milestone and to re-introduce George Weekes to a new generation of working people, we will publish and re-publish a series of articles over the upcoming months exploring the man in the context of his time and the historical legacy he has left.

The following statement was published by the Oilfields Workers Trade Union in February 1995. Some sources have April 27th 1921 as Weekes’ birth date.

George Henry Hilton Weekes was born in the rural North Eastern village of Toco on March 9th 1921, the second son of Edgar and Rebecca Weekes, one of six children born to the headmaster of the Toco EC Primary School and his wife.

At the age of ten, the future President General of the Oilfields Workers' Trade Union, moved to Port of Spain (Sackville Street) and attended the Richmond Street Boys' School and the Tranquillity Intermediate School, which he had to leave after one year.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the army to fight Hitlerite fascism. He served in Italy and Egypt. His experience of racism in the British Army was to stay with him for the rest of his life
George Weekes back row 2nd from right
and was a key component in his future political and ideological outlook; as were the ideas he was exposed to during that critical period of his maturing.

On June 28th 1947, George Weekes married Theresa Brown at the St. Patrick's Church in Newtown. Over the years she bore him six children - Cyril, Kenneth, Kamau (Keith), Gail, Geneve and Christopher.

In 1949 he was employed as a fitter with Trinidad Leaseholds Limited at Pointe-A-Pierre.

By this time George Weekes had made himself familiar with anti-imperialist, socialist and Marxist philosophy and that of Marcus Garvey and above all had been deeply impressed by the struggles of the Butler Movement and registered as a member of the British Empire Workers Peasants and Ratepayers Union (Butler's Union). For the rest of his life he considered himself a Butlerite.

It was this perspective that led Comrade Weekes to committing himself to the anti-apartheid struggle and to the defence of revolutionary Cuba during the 1960's and to his fierce and revolutionary struggles against the multinational corporations.

He joined the West Indian Independence Party and became lifelong comrades of two of its influential members - the late Lennox Pierre and John La Rose. Another close friend, comrade and adviser from that period was attorney Jack Kelshall.

Comrade Weekes, impressing his fellow workers with the strength of his progressive convictions, soon became a committee member of the Pointe-A-Pierre Branch of the OWTU then its Vice President and eventually President of the branch.

By this time, he was a leading member of the Rebels movement in the union - a movement which struggled to democratise the Union, to widen participation by the rank and file in their affairs, to introduce one man, one vote in electing union executives and to get rid of the then President General ‘Big John’ Rojas.

By the time the 1960 oil strike occurred (the first official strike called by the OWTU), Comrade Weekes, by then President of the Pointe-A-Pierre branch, and the Rebels were in the ascendancy. They had actually forced the strike on Rojas, through the mobilisation of the rank and file and won an impressive 22% wage increase along with a reduction in working hours to 44 hours per week.

On March 27th 1962, the General Council of the OWTU approved a vote of no confidence in Rojas and General Secretary Houlder which had been brought by the Palo Seco branch. On 13th April Rojas resigned. A new era in trade unionism was about to take off.

On 25th June 1962, the first executive election based on one man one vote was held in the OWTU. The election was swept by George Weekes and the Rebels. The OWTU was ushered into a period of militant struggle under the leadership of Comrade George Weekes which would change the face of Trinidad and Tobago over the next twenty-five years.

Comrade Weekes' first crisis as President General was the battle to save the jobs of hundreds of workers employed at British Petroleum. On February 17th 1963, 2,600 workers at British Petroleum went on strike. It lasted 57 days. When the General Council decided to call out all union members to support their embattled colleagues, the company was for
George and Theresa
ced back to the negotiating table. Hundreds of jobs were saved. Weekes' leadership was off to a flying start.

Comrade Weekes became the new bogey man of the old economic elites and the new middle class politicians who were quickly shedding their nationalist skins and revealing themselves as nothing but house slaves in new clothes.

The M'banefo Commission was set up in 1963 to investigate subversive elements in the labour movement and in particular in the OWTU. Comrade Weekes was branded a communist. But these accusations did not shake the support of the workers. In 1963, under PG's leadership a pension plan was negotiated at Texaco and the work week was cut to 40 hours. Oil workers began to come into their own and they knew that George Weekes, in addition to their unity and militancy, was in large part responsible.

Because of the insistence of the OWTU the government was forced to establish a commission of enquiry into the oil industry - the Mostofi Commission. In that forum Weekes led the union in articulating the establishment of a national oil company. It was the opening salvo in a long and unfinished struggle for national ownership and control of the national patrimony.

1965 was to be a crucial year for the leadership of George Weekes. The PG was at the time the President of the National Trade Union Congress, when sugar workers revolted against Bhadase Maharaj's oppression and strike breaking tactics. They turned to Comrade Weekes. The leadership of the Congress turned their backs on the sugar workers. There was much violence in the sugar belt and an attempt was made on the PG's life.

On 18th March the government declared a state of emergency to keep oil and sugar workers apart. The government then laid the report of the M'banefo Commission in Parliament and rushed through the Industrial Stabilisation Act (ISA), a pro-employer piece of legislation which introduced compulsory arbitration and an Industrial Court. Many Congress leaders supported the ISA and collaborated with the
Protest against the Industrial Stabilisation Act 1965. George Weekes centre background
PNM government against Weekes' opposition to the Act. On March 24th 1965, Weekes resigned as President of Congress.

Between 1965 and 1970, many attempts were made to destabilise Weekes' position in the OWTU. Some of these were orchestrated by the CIA which made use of elements within the OWTU to stoke and provoke confusion within the union. But George Weekes and the Rebels continued to win victory after victory in union elections.

Paradoxically, but perhaps understandably, when Weekes joined with CLR James, Lennox Pierre, Stephen Maharaj and others to fight the 1966 elections on the Workers' and Farmers' Party ticket, the workers did not support their thrust into conventional politics.

During the sixties there were retrenchment battles to fight at BP and Shell and massive struggles shook the oil belt and merged with the struggles of the late sixties in other areas by workers, youth and unemployeds who were demanding power to the people and true independence.

During that period Weekes and the OWTU refined their positions on the economy and demanded nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy and freedom from the thraldom of the multinationals.

The decade of the sixties in terms of the tremendous struggles of the labour movement and the progressive movement must be characterised as the decade of George Weekes. He re-infused a radical, nationalist, socialist militancy into the labour movement that influenced not only the popular movement in Trinidad and Tobago, but influenced the entire Caribbean movement.

The influence of the George Weekes-led OWTU became so powerful that workers from outside the oil industry began to clamour to join the union which they saw as a steadfast and consistent defender of the interests of the working class. In 1967 the union changed its constitution to allow workers in any industry to join. Dunlop, Fedchem and T&TEC workers seized the opportunity and joined the ranks of the blue shirt army. The ruling elites took careful note of the attraction that the OWTU exercised for all workers

George Weekes, of course, was a leading figure in the 1970 revolution and suffered the consequences by being detained during the state of emergency. Workers began to sense the possibilities inherent in the slogan Let those who labour hold the reins.

The events of 1970 are well known. Other union officers, besides Comrade Weekes, were arrested and detained. Police raided the union headquarters and seized documents such as membership files, account books, grievance records on the pretext that Comrade Weekes and others were guilty of fraud. Fire bombs were thrown at the union headquarters and printery, gunshots were fired and property damaged. But the blue shirt army stood firm.

When the PG was released in November 1970, he was immediately faced with crucial industrial disputes which culminated in the critical struggles at Fed Chem and Dunlop in mid-1971, which led to thousands of workers in other workplaces downing tools in support of their comrades.

Police continued to harass the union, raiding the union and seizing documents and illegally detaining and questioning employees. In late 1971, the government grabbed the opportunity provided by the industrial disputes involving Badger workers to declare another state of emergency. But the real reason was that more and more workers were determined to join the OWTU and many of the reactionary union leaders were running scared and turned to the Eric Williams regime. Union officers, including Comrade Weekes, were again detained.

The government, then enacted the Industrial Relations Act (IRA), which prevented certain categories of workers from joining the OWTU and which severely restricted the right to strike. Again, agents of the anti-worker forces tried to destabilise the union while the President General was in prison, but again they failed.

Through the early seventies, Comrade Weekes consolidated the progressive position in the union, engaged in widespread political education and solidarity work with other unions and workers. The sugar industry was in ferment with the sugar workers, led by Basdeo Panday, a former Vanguard journalist and legal adviser to the OWTU, were seeking to have their conditions of work improved and cane farmers led by Raffique Shah, a hero of the 1970 army mutiny, were seeking the repeal of restrictive legislation and an increased price for their cane.

Through the instrumentality of Comrade Weekes, the United Labour Front was formed at Skinner Park on February 18th 1975; its birth attended by 40,000 workers, farmers and supporters. It also included the Transport and Industrial Workers' Union led by Joe Young.

On March 18th 1975, the "Bloody Tuesday" demonstration of oil, sugar and other workers was broken up by police on Coffee Street, San Fernando, workers were brutalised and Weekes and other leaders were again arrested. Comrade Weekes once again demonstrated his commitment to workers' education by re-establishing and putting on a professional level an Education and Research Department.

In 1976, the United Labour Front was transformed into a political party, fought the 1976 elections and became the official opposition on a platform of workers' power. Comrade Weekes became a Senator. The United Labour Front did not stay together very long. By late 1977 riven by ideological differences the party effectively committed political suicide and PG was once again disappointed politically, not for the last time.

The union had been growing throughout the 1970's, particularly among workers in the East-West Corridor and by the late 1970's was 21,000 strong. There was a wave of strikes in 1978. Comrade Weekes' vision was evident in that year when he pushed and got the Annual Conference to set up a Safety Desk in the union.

1979 too, saw the Texaco Must Go campaign and the Great Pension Struggle. It also saw the waterfront workers at Pointe-a-Pierre responding magnificently to the anti-apartheid education that was one of the shining lights of Comrade Weekes’ career, when they refused to load oil products to Antigua, the government of which was assisting the apartheid regime in South Africa to test weapons.

The 1980's provided no respite, what with the 1980-'81 Fedchem strike, the CPI occupation. 1982 saw Comrade Weekes leading the strikes against offshore contractors and the T&TEC strike. 1983 saw the Bermudez Occupation and the arrest of 14 workers, again contractor workers engaged in struggle.

The oil boom had gone sour and workers were desperately trying to maintain their terms and conditions in the face of the massive attack by employers. Then the Grenada revolution upon which Comrade Weekes had placed so much hope self-destructed.

It is not widely recognised that Comrade Weekes was shattered politically by the events in Grenada and as the wave of struggles played out in the East-West Corridor and the oil industry through the middle eighties, the Grand Old Man of trade unionism relinquished more and more of his responsibility to his executive comrades.

In May 1984, there was a great fightback of workers throughout the country - CPI, Lever, Texaco, Cedros estate workers, Contractor workers, Dunlop workers, Aziz Ahamad workers. Although some of these struggles were successful, it is fair to say that the employers effectively exploiting declining economic conditions gained the upper hand.

Although workers continued to struggle, as exemplified by the 1986-87 Fedchem lockout, the political situation with the election victory of the NAR had plunged the country into a still not lifted period of reaction and into the hands of the international lending agencies.

Comrade Weekes retired in 1987 and tried to influence the NAR policies from within, yet another unsuccessful foray into the realms of conventional politics.

Probably the most apt epitaph on Comrade Weekes' death came from a retired oil worker who said that regardless of what one thought of Comrade Weekes he had brought workers into the twentieth century, given them confidence that they were entitled to the benefits of modern civilisation and made it an article of faith that the working class must and will hold the reins of power. Rest in peace, Good and faithful soldier!