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TRADE UNIONS THEN AND NOW By Ken Howell

posted 6 Oct 2015, 08:13 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 6 Oct 2015, 08:29 ]

The birth of the OWTU, in the 1930s, was a natural response of the workers to the oppressive conditions under which they were employed at that time. The national strike which preceded its formation influenced the formation of other unions along with the OWTU in 1937, such as the ATSEFWTU, the SWWTU and others.

In the south land, across the country and the Caribbean, the OWTU was regarded with high esteem. In fact so loved was the Union that it was as though the people from San Fernando to Moruga, was the union and the union was the people. The Unions were able in those days to make their presence felt.  When the union strayed away from the militant path the workers placed the leadership in the hands of Comrade George Weekes, and under his leadership the union led the campaign for the nationalization of the oil industry.


George Weekes
Weekes played a critical role in the 1970 revolt and because of the Union's position in the energy sector he commanded the attention of the government and the employer class. During the tenure of Comrade Weekes the Union had the ability to ensure, that it was respected. That is why the PNM never forgave it for its actions in that regard.                                                

The PNM never had nationalization on its agenda. So although it was forced by the events of 1970 to implement the Declaration of Chaguaramas, it remained committed to the policy of divesting the State of the Republic of T&T of all assets which it had created or nationalized.  What we witnessed from then on, was the declaration of war on the trade unions. 

It was the renewal of a war which was launched prior and during the period of the late 1950s to 1960s, when the government launched an attack on so-called Communist elements in the trade union movement. The purpose of that campaign was to prepare the population for the introduction of labour legislation which has had the effect of restricting the right of workers to take industrial action by way of strikes.                                       

That piece of legislation was the Industrial Stabilisation Act of 1965 which was repealed by the passage of the Industrial Relations Act of 1972 Chapter 88:01.  Now it is important to understand, that the events of 1970 had thrown the government into a tail spin, with respect to its plans for the development of this country as a young capitalist state. 

It decided that it had to tighten labour legislation in order to keep the trade unions in check. It achieved that objective by soliciting the active support of trade union leaders who were pro-employer and members of the party. This situation, led to the formation of the Council of Progressive Trade Unions, in which the OWTU and the TIWU were the leading unions because of the progressive stance which they took on issues affecting the interest of the working class.

But while it appeared at the time to be a struggle against the passage of oppressive labour laws, it was also about protecting the gains made through the demands to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy. When you put the events which occurred following the 1970 revolt under the microscope, those which involved ideological conflicts between left groups of well-meaning, bright young sons and daughters who were committed to struggle for real political and economic change, it would appear that the cat was thrown among the pigeons, in that we all felt so strongly about the correctness of our positions that we were unable to see how we were being played.

We could not differentiate the forest from the trees and so when the United Labour Front was formed these problems were transported into that party. We did not realise then that the anti-working class forces which were bent on taking us down the capitalist road were actively at work in the trade unions and in the left movement. One of the problems which Comrade Weekes might have seen when he attempted to bring oil and sugar workers together, was the way the labour force was configured, thereby making it vulnerable to the tactics of divide and rule.

Bhadase Sagan Maharaj
This was corroborated when Dr. Eric Williams succeeded in securing the help of Bhadase Sagan Maraj, who had unleashed thugs and gangsters on his opponents in the sugar belt who were mobilising sugar workers to join oil workers in the struggle.

Although the country was awash with oil dollars during the 1970s, the government abandoned planning, as a result of which children who came out of the education system painfully discovered that some of the disciplines in which they were qualified were not catered for in the labour market. This is still the situation today. 

The government left it up to the private sector to decide which the priority areas for investment were. On the question of those areas that are described as depressed and rural, instead of building sustainable economic structures there, they were assigned to carry out make work programmes which fed small and large scale corruption. 

Another important issue is the collapse of the sugar industry. This was inevitable, because with the decline in the price of oil, the government could no longer subsidise that industry. And with the departure of Mr. Basdeo Panday from the leadership of the union, there was no political need to subsidise the Union. I mention these things because it is important for us to understand how the government manipulated the political situation, by playing on the opportunism of labour leaders and so-called progressive politicians.

What is also important is for us to be aware of how these past issues connect with the present. Many of the leaders of the trade union movement believe that the strategy and forms of struggle adopted in the past are no longer relevant today. As a consequence, when they were faced with a state of emergency, which interrupted their ability to mobilise for a complete shutdown of the country, they chose to appeal to prayers as the new form of mobilisation of the workers. That was not the case with the labour leaders of the 1960s and 1970s. They were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, in defence of the interest of the workers.

In 1975, when the trade union movement staged a demonstration in San Fernando for bread peace and justice, PNM set

Joe Young
the police on the demonstrators, who were brutally beaten and several leaders including Comrades Weekes, Joe Young, Raffique Shah, Basdeo Panday and Clive Nunez were arrested and charged under the Summary Offences Act. 

The 1976 elections marked a high point in the attempts of the working people to take charge of their destiny, through the route of the ballot box. In that regard, we were not successful, although we were able to form the opposition. Following the collapse of oil prices and the coming into office of the National Alliance for Reconstruction, which led to it seeking to impose on the country draconian economic measures in 1987, the working class had another chance to assume the leadership of the country, had it not been for the betrayal of the struggle by extremist elements.

One of the issues which restricted the ability of successive governments to initiate the process of divestment with more vigour is the inability or unwillingness of the private sector to buy into the state sector, except where profitable state assets are placed on the stock market in small or acceptable chunks for sale: assets such as FCB or TTNGL.  

Notwithstanding that draw back, privatization has been initiated in the energy sector as well as in the public sector. In the public sector new structures such as the Roads Authority, the Transport Authority, and the Drainage Authority have already been established. In the not too distant future daily rated workers employed in these areas will be earmarked for separation. There is also the question of the Revenue Authority which is to come on stream very soon. 

What we are seeing is that privatization is occurring in the public sector, and the government has set in train measures, such as the establishment of the Regional Health Authorities, through which the health sector is being privatized. It has successfully created thousands of temporary jobs in the Public Sector, through the process of employing persons on fixed term contracts. Contract labour has also been the order of the day in the energy sector.                                       

Through the out-sourcing of the work to rehabilitate/work over old wells in areas where previously it was permanent workers doing the rehabilitation work, we now have contract workers employed by contractors, who pay their employees less than the unionised rate. 

What the trade union movement and some of the leaders do not understand, is that under the guise of republicanism, substantial assets of the state are being transferred and others are earmarked to be transferred to the multinationals and local private sector, under a policy which Prime Minister George Chambers revealed in the early 1980s; and the trade union movement is the only obstacle in the way of the government and the execution of that plan.  So what do you do when there is an obstacle in your path? Obviously, you resort to the use of the most appropriate measures to remove it. 

The major obstacles in the path of the government are the PSA, the NUGFW, and the OWTU. The government has already succeeded in winning over the leaders of the two largest unions in the public sector, and also had the OWTU in its grasp when it chose to sponsor a political party and became a member of the PP government with the support of the CWU and a few NGOs. As a result of this reckless excursion into bourgeois politics, the leaders of the union have done irreparable damage to their image but appear to be oblivious to this fact! 

Today, we are at a place where we can continue to destroy the trade union movement through internecine squabbles, or recognise the mistakes and work to correct them. We do not have much time on our hands. Whether you choose to believe it or not who won and who lost the election is neither here nor there, the privatization of the state sector will go ahead as planned, unless the trade unions have something to say and do about it. 

All is not lost for the OWTU as the leading trade union in the country, if it begins to build and strengthen the union from within the branches through the process of worker education and quality representation. This is also necessary for the rest of the movement. At this time genuine unity and solidarity is of paramount importance, not for partisan political campaigns but in order to restore the confidence and trust in the labour movement as the only true defender of the working class.

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