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THE MICHAEL ALS I KNEW by Cecil Paul

posted 6 Dec 2013, 16:33 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 6 Dec 2013, 16:38 ]
Michael Als, the founder and first President of Bank Workers Union (BGWU), has died. The Union after a merger with the then Union representing Republic Bank Workers is now named Banking Insurance and General Workers Union (BIGWU). 

Michael Als’s political baptism was in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in the heat of the revolutionary struggles of that period. At the time he was the leader of a South Trinidad based progressive group known as the Young Power Movement. 
 
This group together with other left radical political and social organizations staged protest actions and demonstrations leading to the 1970 Revolution in Trinidad and Tobago. This movement led by progressive trade unionists, students and cultural nationalists changed the political, economic and social conditions to the benefit of the people of our country. 
 
After the revolution in the mid 1970’s Michael almost single-handedly formed the Bank and General Workers Union from a single desk and small office space on Frederick Street, Port of Spain, provided by the Oilfields Workers Trade Union (OWTU) and the Council of Progressive Trade Unions (CPTU). 
 
Michael’s mentors at the time were Eugene Joseph, then a Senior Labour Relations Officer of the OWTU and General Secretary of the CPTU; James Lynch, a former Butlerite and NUGFW Executive and George Weekes the then President General of the OWTU. 

 It was in that office on Frederick Street, Port of Spain that I first met Michael (although I knew about him) while visiting to file grievances with the OWTU as a shop steward at National Petroleum‘s (NP) Port of Spain operations. 

However trade unionism, progressive politics and the workers’ struggles would bring us closer together in a few years time. With the advent of the United Labour Front and the party becoming the political opposition many of its leaders (George Weekes, Raffique Shah, Basdeo Panday Joe Young and others), who were also leaders of the CPTU, went into Parliament. This created space for several young trade unionists just into their 30’s in age to lead the progressive trade union movement. 

During this period Michael Als was elected General Secretary of CPTU. I became a Labour Relations Officer of the OWTU and a representative to the CPTU executive. Then tragedy struck the movement: John Abraham then First Vice President of the OWTU and President of the CPTU died in an auto accident and the OWTU nominated me and I was elected the President of the CPTU. 

Michael was always pre-occupied with building his Union (BGWU) and uniting the Labour Congress and the CPTU in a unified labour federation. He worked tirelessly towards these two goals. I accompanied him to many meetings with the Labour Congress at their office at the former Workers Bank in East Port of Spain. The CPTU’s office was then located on the Eastern Main Road in Laventille and also housed the Bank and General Workers Union of which Michael was President. 

It was at this point in his career he authored the booklet “Is Slavery Again” condemning the repressive Industrial Stabilisation Act (ISA), the forerunner to the Industrial Relations Act (IRA). He was also the author of other booklets on various and diverse themes. 

Michael was also a politician and was the leader of the Peoples Progressive Movement (PPM). The party contested several seats in general elections during the 80’s. Additionally he was involved with the United Labour Front (ULF) and the United National Congress (UNC). He also contested general elections and served as a Senator. 
  
In 1983 the progressive political and labour movement in the country became divided during and after the collapse of the Grenada Revolution. As a result Michael Als left the trade union movement. So important was his role that his departure caused a reorganization of the CPTU. Despite his departure, the Union he founded, now in a merger, expanded its membership to the extent of now being one of the major unions in the country. This is a testimony to his leadership qualities and succession planning. 
  
Michael Als was awarded the “Hero of Labour” medal by the Council of Progressive Trade Unions just before the merger of CPTU with the Labour Congress and the resultant formation of the National Trade Union Centre (NATUC). This was a fitting tribute to a leader who had worked tirelessly for labour unity in Trinbago. 

Michael the consummate activist was to surface again, this time in the North East village of Toco: now as a community activist. He founded the Toco Foundation and Radio Toco. These two institutions have made significant contributions towards the improvement and empowerment of the rural community. I last saw him at the funeral of farmers’ activist Norris Deonarine. 
 
Michael Als has left his footprint and his legacy on the labour movement, the politics and community activism in the country. But most of all he has left the legacy of giving birth and nurturing one of the major trade unions in the country. 

Cecil Paul

December 6, 2013

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