Chic, as he is called, came into national prominence in the mid 1970’s when, together with Ian Clarke and the late Wayne Edwards, he out-manoeuvred and defeated the powerful and autocratic Secretary General of the CWU Carl Tull and was elected the Union’s new Secretary General at the Convention.
I first came to know Lyle, briefly, in the 1960’s when he came to my community to spend school vacation with his aunt. His cousin, Michael Hart, was the captain of our football team. We were both teenagers who happened to be in the same space and were not really friends.
We were fated to meet again in the 1970’s in the progressive political and trade union movement as a group of young revolutionaries who saw ourselves as the “children” of progressive radical leaders George Weekes, Joe Young, Nuevo Diaz, Winston Leonard, Krishna Goberdhan and others.
Intellectuals like CLR James, Dr. James Millette, Lennox Pierre, Basdeo Panday and others schooled us in trade unionism and politics. It was in this revolutionary setting that I saw Lyle in action and learnt to respect his “in your face” tactics and hard-line stances.
There were times when some of the comrades disagreed and quarrelled with him over some of his positions. He was a difficult person to deal with. But we were always comforted by the truth of his mission of seeking justice and improvement in the lives of working people.
Lyle, on assuming the leadership of CWU, transformed the Union from a de-facto passive industrial trade union arm of the PNM (known as Telco Party Group) to a politically independent progressive and militant trade union representing workers in the Telephone and Cable/Wireless Industries of Telco and Textel.
He also spread its membership into the Hotel and Manufacturing Industries. Townsend also scrapped the delegate voting and introduced the one member one-vote system of electing leaders. He took the union out of the pro-government Trinidad and Tobago Labour Congress (T&TLC) and joined the independent and progressive Council of Progressive Trade Unions (CPTU)
Lyle Townsend was an activist of the 1976 United Labour Front (ULF) of Weekes, Young, Panday and Shah. When the ULF split, he became a member of the Committee For Labour Solidarity (CLS) and then the Movement For Social Transformation (MOTION).
Lyle was a multi-faceted activist and played football for Maple and Essex. He was a panist with Starlift. In the early 1980’s he was one of the founders of the Anti Apartheid Movement of Trinidad and Tobago and the Committee in Defence of West Indian Cricket (CIDWIC).
He was one of the main organizers of the Test Match boycott in 1986 against the English cricketers who had toured South Africa. This boycott led to the beating and arrests of several anti-apartheid protestors and journalists. On becoming leader of the union he opened up the facilities to various cultural and social groups of working people who had no place to conduct their activities and hold meetings.
With the mantra “Dare To Struggle, Dare to Win”, Comrade Lyle Townsend’s influence on the CWU was both profound and beneficial to its members. The Union gained respect and workers greatly increased their salaries/wages and benefits from mediocre to one of the highest and better packages of benefits in Trinbago.
By forming an alliance with progressive unions such as Oilfields Workers Trade Union (OWTU) and Transport and Industrial Workers Union (TIWU) in the Council Of Progressive Trade Unions (CPTU), Lyle’s CWU was able to access the progressive trends and policies in collective bargaining to the benefit of his members.
Lyle Townsend was eventually elected to two 2-year terms as President of the CPTU and was involved in the formation of the Joint Trade Union Movement (JTUM) in 1986; then shortly after The National Trade Union Centre (NATUC), which unified the entire movement into one Federation.
He was also instrumental in The Summit of Peoples Organization (SOPO), a broad based Peoples Organization that fought against the NAR’s economic policies and organized the Day of Resistance that shut down the country in 1989 and led to the eventual defeat of the NAR Government in 1991. During these periods Lyle insisted and was the loudest advocate for the independence of these groups from political interference or political alliances of any sort.
Lyle was not only uncompromising to employers but also with his comrades in the trade union and political movement. He had to be fully convinced on new issues of policy and strategic actions to the point of engaging in long arguments and heated debates reaching to levels of antagonisms.
One of the issues was the Social Wage Policy, a new package of benefits outside of the traditional collective agreements. There were two major items of: A Workers Housing Mortgage at 4% interest funded by 10% of Pension Funds where there is a surplus and the other A Profit Sharing Bonus of 10% of Company’s Profits equally divided among all workers.
Lyle thought that under no circumstances should workers’ Pensions be compromised and the union must not act as a mortgage agent. On the profit sharing his views was that the Union should not get into the company’s profits except for Wage/Salary bargaining and that the company could argue for a pay deduction if there is a loss. Also such a benefit could reduce the bargaining power of the union for Wages/Salaries. It took months of arguments and convincing in the CPTU for Lyle to agree to the new policy. Such was his commitment to protecting the interests of workers.
Even while Lyle Townsend was retired and ill, he spoke out against individuals in the labour movement getting involved with political parties with a history of anti-worker policies.
He saw this development as compromising the interests of workers. His views on MSJ’s alliance with the PP government are recorded in the media. His major concern was ensuring that opportunist politicians disguised as trade unionists do not contaminate workers unions. He was for a STAND ALONE WORKERS PARTY controlled by and led by workers.
Lyle “Chic” Townsend was not an easy person to deal with. I should know. He was President and I was General Secretary of the CPTU for several years. We were involved in activities ranging from trade unionism and politics to social activism.
However what I am sure of and what I can put my head on a block for, is that for the 30 years of his service to working people, he was totally devoted to their interests. He exerted every ounce of his uncompromising and aggressive militancy to bring positive changes to their lives. His was a life devoted to working people. I am sure history will record him as a Hero of Labour.