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JOE YOUNG AND THE SAGA OF THE BUS WORKERS by Dr. Godfrey Vincent

posted 4 Oct 2012, 20:56 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 4 Oct 2012, 22:07 ]
I came to know Joe Young, some fifteen years ago. On many afternoons in Port of Spain at the OWTU Lennox Pierre Auditorium, Joe and I engaged in many interesting conversations on a number of national and international issues affecting the working class.

In 2009, I visited Trinidad to conduct field research for my dissertation and Joe Young granted me a ninety minute interview at his home in St. James, Port of Spain. Indeed, it was an historic moment.

Young discussed his life as a young man, his involvement in the trade union movement, his relationship with George Weekes, the struggles against the ISA, the Bus Workers’ strike, the Black Power Revolution, the United Labour Front, his role as a judge in the Industrial Court, and the state of the Trade Union movement.

More importantly, Joe Young gave me copies of speeches he delivered over the years. Therefore, to honour Joe Young’s sterling contribution to the working class, I present an edited version of a section of my dissertation. 
 
JOE YOUNG AND GEORGE WEEKES
 
J
oe Young and George Weekes became very close friends and fellow activists in efforts to help the working class especially during the period when Eric Williams and the PNM crippled the trade union movement with the Passage of the ISA. 

This friendship developed and grew over the years as both men forged to unite the trade union movement and became Marxists and anti-PNM government opponents. Young gave an interesting tale of the development of his long friendship with Weekes: 

"I knew Weekes when he worked at Texaco. At that time he was organizing a movement to oust John Rojas from the leadership of the OWTU. I was a Trade union organizer organizing bus workers of the Southern Bus Concession Company, one of the privately-owned Bus companies, and we held our meetings at the OWTU Palms Club. 

Because we both lived in the north of the country, Weekes in San Juan and I in Port of Spain, we traveled from San Fernando together on the last bus that left at 9.00 PM. In fact, I deliberately took the local bus and not the Express bus just to converse with George. The local bus took a route through the old Southern Main Road into Curepe. On the journey, we discussed the trade union movement and politics in general. Thes
e bus rides continued until we both became leaders of our respective unions."
     

This friendship between George Weekes and Joe Young lasted until the death of George Weekes. The bus rides cemented their friendship and comradeship, and the two became great opponents of Eric Williams, his PNM government, especially when they developed a new antigovernment movement to challenge what they considered to be the repressive ISA legislation. This time they would unite in a show of strength by mobilizing their forces to support the workers of Transport and Industrial Workers’ Union in their struggle against the Trinidad Bus Company. 
 
TIWU FORMED
 
Before the country achieved formal independence in 1962, four Public Transport Concessionaires that included the Trinidad Bus Service, the Princes Town Special Bus Service Company Limited, the Arima Bus Company and the City Transport provided bus services. These companies were privately operated, and the workers were represented by pro-PNM unions. For example, the Amalgamated Transport Workers Union led by W.W. Sutton and the Union of Commercial & Industrial Workers’ led by Vas Stanford represented the workers at both companies. 
 
In 1961, the Bus transportation workers in the south of the island took the initiative to challenge Sutton’s leadership. This action led to the formation of the Transport and Industrial Workers Union and its subsequent registration as a Trade Union in May, 1962. 
  
Joe Young recalled that this action took place at one of the meetings at Palms Club in 1962, when Sutton came to address workers of his decision to fire him. The workers became infuriated and turned on Sutton. “It was there and then that the workers decided that I should become their leader and that we form our own union”. Based on this struggle, the new union sought union recognition for all Bus workers throughout the country. 
 
SIXTY FIVE DAY STRIKE
 
In 1964, TIWU, in seeking to revise its first agreement with the Bus Company, waged one of its most bitter struggles that lasted for sixty five days. This was before the passage of the ISA when unions were permitted the right to strike. 


When the workers took strike action, the company withdrew the union’s recognition. This action only fanned the flame of workers discontent who stepped up their protest actions. 

The Bus workers took their struggle to the general public, and they waged a massive petition campaign signed by 14,000 to 20,000 persons calling for the nationalization of the private Bus companies. The union presented the petition to the Minister of Public Utilities who in turn presented it to the Prime Minister. 

Based on the public’s response which was in favour of nationalization, the government introduced a Bill in Parliament to nationalize the Bus Industry which took effect on January 1, 1965. This nationalization appeared to be in keeping with its overall policy of more government intervention in the economy. On the issue of Government’s decision to nationalize the Bus Company, Joe Young recalled: 
NATIONALIZATION
 
“I was at a conference at the OWTU in San Fernando…. when I received a letter from members of the security forces that the Prime Minister requested to see me. The police drove me from San Fernando to Whitehall. When I arrived at Whitehall, the Prime Minister’s office, Dr. Williams greeted me and introduced me to his Cabinet. In their presence, Dr. Williams informed me of the government’s decision to nationalize the Bus Companies. I informed the Prime Minister that the workers had not been paid. 

In response, Dr. Williams told me that the government was in a financial crisis at the time. He informed me that the workers should make some concessions. I agreed that the government should immediately pay three quarters of the workers’ salaries. Williams agreed to my request but said that the workers would have to repay the government in small weekly deductions.” 
 
On May 1, 1965, the PNM government passed the Transport Service Act No. 2 and in the process created the Public Transport Service
 
 
  WITH CLR JAMES
Corporation. The Act mandated the Corporation to provide a safe, clean and inexpensive service to the people of Trinidad and Tobago. In the process, the government also established the new Public Transport Service Corporation Board under the Chairmanship of Carl Tull, a PNM Trade Unionist and a political appointee who sought to replace TIWU as the workers’ representative and replace it with Vas Stanford’s UCIW, another PNM controlled Trade Union. 

In addition to this move, the Board, under the direction of Labour Officer of the PTSC, McDonald Moses, a former member of the first executive of the OWTU, organized a program to rid the Corporation of TIWU. When the government nationalized the private companies, both TIWU and the Union of Commercial and Industrial Workers Union represented the workers. 

However, Joe Young and TIWU’s leadership sought to unite all the workers under the TIWU banner to become the sole bargaining agent. This plan did not sit well with Carl Tull and the PTSC Board and on November 1965 Tull, using his powers as Chairman of the Board, withdrew recognition from TIWU and granted sole recognition to Stanford’s led union. 

Undaunted by the Board’s decision, TIWU’s leadership and the Bus workers took industrial action against the Corporation and took their case to the Industrial Court. On March 8, 1968, the Court granted TIWU sole recognition to bargain on behalf of all the Bus workers. 

INDUSTRIAL COURT
 
However, this victory did not resolve the issues with the union and management. There were still a number of unresolved issues, and both parties returned to the Industrial Court to have it resolve the collective bargaining agreement. The Court sided with PTSC’s management on the issues of wages and the elimination of some benefits the workers previously won in the previous collective bargaining agreements. 

In commenting on the Court’s decision, Joe Young in an interview with Moko, the official organ of The United National Independence Party (UNIP) stated that, “The present crisis in the bus service has taken place because the industrial court has imposed the impossibility of trying to use legal machinery to regulate industrial relations. Legal machinery could not truly understand the intricacies of human relations in industry. A human relation is something flexible; legality is inflexible.” 
  
The Industrial Court was not established to deal with industrial relations issues but rather it was an institution to blunt the class struggle between labour and capital. Despite the government’s efforts to thwart the struggle, the workers were more determined to intensify it because they were urged on by the new wave of black-popular social consciousness and activism that had begun to spread throughout the Caribbean region. 

By 1969, the political mood of the working-class had begun to change. Whereas three years before they were reluctant to challenge the ISA, the working class was now openly opposing what appeared to be a repressive piece of legislation. This new development occurred as a result of the new breed of militant young people who became active in the OWTU and TIWU. 

Both the OWTU and the young TIWU became magnets for workers who were fed up with their Trade Union leaders who were more concerned with political appointments than representing their collective interests. This development had its genesis in 1966 when workers at Neal and Massy Automobile plant at Morvant waged a bitter struggle against the company and the leadership of the UCIW. 

In 1967, union members belonging to TIWU, the Union of Foods, Hotels, Beverages and Allied Workers, the Tobacco Workers Union, the Agricultural Workers’ Union and the National Workers’ Trade Union came under an umbrella body called the Progressive and Democratic Trade Unionism.
 
1969 BUS STRIKE
 
Moreover, in 1968, the OWTU, together with other unions, organized a “March of Resistance” against the ISA, retrenchment and unemployment through the streets of Port of Spain. These acts of resistance demonstrated the workers’ resolve to stand up to the government and the employers whom they saw as arch-enemies against the Trade Union movement. Additionally, the workers were intent on showing solidarity with each others’ causes.  

This show of solidarity dovetailed into the Bus workers struggle for a new collective bargaining agreement that was aborted in 1967 but recommenced in 1968. During the ongoing negotiations, the Corporation, on January 1, 1968, failed to honour the promise at the end of the moratorium. A MOKO article that documented the Bus Workers’ struggle noted that, “Not until December did the Corporation pay the 6% retroactive to January 1968.” 
When the union met with the PTSC management to discuss the new collective bargaining agreement, the Corporation offered the Union 6% and informed the Union of their intention to take the matter to the Industrial Court. This decision, therefore, set the stage for a showdown between the Union and the Corporation. In March 1969, the Industrial Court ruled on the case and awarded the workers a 12 % increase for 1966 and 1967 but no increase for 1968. This increase, however, was based on 1965 salaries. 

In response to the Court’s ruling, TIWU’s president declared, “The decision of the Industrial Court on the bus workers matter in March, 1969 was an open invitation for struggle; it had in it all the ingredients necessary for a strike: a poor wage award; and the elimination of some benefits previously enjoyed by workers.” 
Based on the Court’s decision, Joe Young called a mass meeting with the Bus workers, and they took a decision to go on strike. On April 21, 1969, the Bus workers went on strike knowing that the action would result in jail time, decertification of the union and loss of employment. However, having reviewed all the implications of the strike, they decided that the ISA must be confronted and defeated or workers will permanently face victimization, low pay and less benefit compensation. 

For the Bus workers, the strike was not only for TIWU’s cause but represented an action on behalf the entire working class. This strike caught George Weekes’ attention, and he decided to support his comrade Joe Young in this crucial strike that would determine in many ways the future direction of the Trade Union Movement in Trinidad and Tobago. 

Alternatively, the strike also caught the attention of the government who responded by employing temporary bus workers who drove the buses under police protection. In addition, they issued 200 summonses to workers to appear in court under the Industrial Stabilization Act. 

The government had hoped that these charges would have broken the strikers’ wills; however, despite some of the workers crossing the picket-line, the majority of workers held out. It was within the context of this government intervention that George Weekes decided to also intervene in the strike when TIWU called a mass meeting and invited the OWTU, the opposition, Democratic Labour Party (DLP), University lecturers, Lloyd Best and James Millette, the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC), university students, Basdeo Panday, Lennox Pierre and other radical minded individuals 

At that meeting, those present took a decision to assemble at TIWU headquarters on Broadway, Port of Spain on May 13, 1969 to form a human chain to block the buses from leaving the Corporation’s compound on South Quay, Port of Spain. 

On that very morning, some of the protestors physically laid in front of the buses, preventing them from moving. However, the police officers intervened and arrested those who attempted to block the buses. Those arrested were brought before the courts and charged for trespassing on government’s property. Additionally, many Bus workers were dismissed from the PTSC. 

There was a strong undercurrent of economic and political discontent in the society that was ready to confront the government and the 1969 protest was only the staging ground, the opening act for the 1970 Black Power uprising which changed the face of T&T and launched the working class movement onto a different path as the class struggle moved to a new level. But that is a story for another time.
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