Where we stand‎ > ‎News & Comment‎ > ‎


posted 12 Jun 2011, 19:03 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 14 Jun 2011, 07:12 ]


by Sylvestre McLaren

Those who believe that the Trade Union Movement is fast becoming irrelevant are in that group of persons who also blame this development on certain elements who entered the movement around the early 1970s. It is true, that this period was one in which there was a lot of ideological and political debate engaging the attention of many on the left and in the leading trade unions however, such occurrences was not new to the movement.

Comrade Sylvestre McLaren, a well-known stalwart of the trade union movement since the 1960’s is the Treasurer of the National Workers’ Union. He joined the movement as a result of being involved in left politics.

In 1961 he joined the Union of Foods Hotels Beverages and Allied Workers, which later changed its name to the Union of Foods Hotels and Industrial Workers. Subsequent to the Bus STRIKE OF 1969, in which he was involved, he became a member of the Transport and Industrial Workers Union (TIWU) and was instrumental in causing employees of Trinidad Paper Products Ltd to join TIWU.

He became an Officer in TIWU in October 1978 being elected to the position of Chief Organiser with responsibility for recruiting and organising branches into the Union.

He held the position of Education and Research Officer and was an Executive Officer until 1997. In that same year he became an employee of the National Union of Government and Federated Workers and served that Union for 7 years.

In the 1950s, the split in the World Federation of Trade Unions, led to a split in the Trinidad and Tobago Labour Congress. Subsequent to this there were other splits. The important question to be asked was why these splits were occurring?

Well, the capitalist system was being challenged by a political and economic system led by working people and this fact was not clearly understood by some leaders of the movement. As a consequence some leaders either wittingly or unwittingly, took the side of the capitalist. This situation was further exacerbated when the Peoples National Movement (PNM) led by Dr. Eric Williams came on the political scene.

Many of the labour leaders who were already lining up on the side of the capitalist were brought into the PNM. One must remember that Dr. Williams was employed in the Anglo American Commission and therefore, he was aware of what was happening in the politics, the trade unions, and he also knew who were the movers and shapers of the politics at that time.

With the emergence of labour leaders such as George Weeks and Joe Young in the movement in the late 50s and early 60s at a time when the issue of recognition rights led to strikes, the movement assumed a greater militancy and the conflict between labour leaders on the right and left sharpened. The conflict sharpened further when those union leaders who were members and supporters of the PNM brought out their members in 1965 in support of the passage of the anti-worker Industrial Stabilisation Act.

While they were picketing in support of the ISA the progressive wing of the movement led by George Weekes of the O.W.T.U. and Joe Young of T.I.W.U. was picketing against its passage. This situation in the movement continued into the 1970s, when the government’s development plan - which was the justification for the passage of the ISA- collapsed. The centre- piece of that plan was “industrialisation by invitation”. This question of how should a newly independent country develop its human and natural resources obviously occupied the minds of the leadership of the country and this led to the model which eventually failed.

The fact that it occurred at a time when the anti-colonial struggle was raging in the colonies and there were struggles being waged against racism in America, Canada, England and on the African continent, caused people of African descent to examine the conditions of their existence. This led to the emergence of an organisation called the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC). Some trade unions were members of this grouping.

The central issue raised by the NJAC was the demand for the government to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy. The government was forced to nationalise banks whose ownership was Canadian, as well as some oil companies that were owned by Americans. The other issue which arose out of the protest action was a call for the government of Canada to release those Caribbean students held for allegedly damaging computers and setting fire to the computer room at Sir George Williams University. It was therefore under the cover of the anti-colonial and black power struggles that these elements entered the left movement in this country.

We must never forget that the OWTU and Comrade George Weekes played a critical role in the campaign for the nationalisation of the oil companies. Therefore, the union and its leader were targeted for infiltration. Those elements that succeeded in carrying out this task were able to fool those loyal and dedicated comrades in trade unions on the left into believing that they were genuine and committed to the struggle of the “working people” as one particular individual liked to say. And so, from 1975 to now these elements who pretend to be progressive, with the support of those who were always pro-capitalist continue to divide the movement.

Efforts to bring about unity in the movement in order to counter the wage restraint policy launched by the government failed. The Public Services Association which was leading the struggle against the government’s 5% offer to public servants succumbed to the pressure and in the absence of unity in the movement the leader Watson Duke accepted the offer of the government.

His acceptance of the government’s offer was regarded in some quarters as a betrayal of public servants, other public sector employees as well as workers in the private sector. While it is correct to condemn the action of the leader of the PSA, we must learn the lessons it is teaching us - that in the absence of unity in the movement opportunism will prevail.