The roots of Trinidad's Labour Day

OWTU protest
By Tony Fraser in Trinidad


Seventy five years ago on June 19th, workers in the oilfields in the deep south of Trinidad instigated by Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler initiated a series of riots and strikes.

It led to the most far-reaching set of social, industrial, political consequences in 20th century T&T and indeed other parts of the West Indies.



At what has come to be known as the Charlie King Junction in Fyzabad, discontent and anger at their abject condition of poverty, made so by unimaginable levels of exploitation and dehumanization, workers in the oilfields of the deep south of the country vented their built-up rage on police corporal Charlie King; he was set afire.

The incident triggered widespread unrest and strikes in the oilfields, in the railways in Port of Spain, in Sangre Grande and on the sugar estates in central and south Trinidad.

Instead of seeking to respond to the causes of the violence and strikes, the colonial authorities sent for a British battleship that was in the waters of the northern Caribbean to put down the rebellion.


In support of the action of the British government, the Chairman of the West India Committee, Lieutenant Colonel Davson said “people in the island had forgotten what a British warship looked like.”

Gun first


Port of Spain merchant, George Huggins, was shocked at the audacity of the workers: “It is the first time in my knowledge that shotguns had been used by natives against white men and such outbreaks should be put down relentlessly.”


One poster carried by workers and protestors in Port of Spain gave the perspective of the workers: “not bayonets and blood, but more pay.”


In today's terms, only a few people (14) were killed, five dozen injured and hundreds of the rioting and striking workers were arrested.

Weeks before the riots, which triggered the strike in the oilfields and reaction in sugar and elsewhere, Butler had written to Governor Murchison Fletcher warning that “the present hostile attitude of the oil workers is the result of the failure of their many and varied constitutional please, prayers, petitions for more pay and better all-round conditions of life and labour in the oilfields.”

However, the local and expatriate employers and merchants considered Butler and his colleagues to be no more than “trouble makers” seeking to agitate workers who were essentially well-paid, satisfactorily housed and fed.

Governor's sympathy


But on a visit to Fyzabad, Governor Fletcher, who became sympathetic to the plight of the workers, was given the real story by Elbert Redvers Blades (who remains alive today at 110) and a group of workers.


Mr. Blades told me in an interview 13 years ago that when the Governor spoke with them at the administrative offices at the oil company, they invited him to come see their living conditions at the barracks. The British gentleman wisely declined the offer; but supported their case for improved conditions and pay. 

But while the explosion took place in Fyzabad in June 1937, like any such significant historical event, it had been preceded by decades of growing protest action and not only in Trinidad.


Regional issues


The water front workers in British Guiana had struck in 1918-1919, riots had taken place on the sugar estates in Guiana, in St. Kitts, Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean workers were demonstrating their dissatisfaction. 


Stevedores on the POS wharf struck in 1919. On sugar estates in central Trinidad, sugar workers came out against their working and living conditions.

On the return of West Indian soldiers from the war, they hit the streets in protest against working conditions and rank racism practiced against them. Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani, of the white upper-class establishment, led them into battle.

So too did the likes of J.J. Thomas, Henry Sylvester Williams, Muzumbo Lazare and Jamaican Marcus Moosiah Garvey impact to raise awareness amongst the oppressed masses.

Protests ignored           


But notwithstanding all the signs of dissatisfaction and the building of the rebellious spirit, the local colonial authorities remained unmoved, persuaded by their own sense of self righteousness.

But this column is not meant to be a chronicling of the events, historians such as Brinsely Samaroo, Bridget Brereton, Bukka Rennie, Ron Ramdin and others have done the research work and extensively analysed the events.

What is intended is to give a sense of the accomplishment - 75 years after - of what was started by the workers in Fyzabad in Central Trinidad and in Port of Spain, led by the likes of Jim Barrat, Elma Francois (read Reddock on the involvement of women in the struggle), Christina King and several others.

It was a struggle to affirm of self-worth in reaction to the dehumanization and it triggered reactions throughout the West Indies.

One of the notable achievements was how Indian and African workers saw their problems in common terms.


And How Adrian Cola Rienzi (Krishna Deonarine) formulated and led, ably assisted by Blades (general secretary) the Oilfields and Sugar unions.  It was a consciousness by workers, well-captured decades after by Black Stalin: “Sufferers doh care about race….”
The Labour Riots of 1937 did not initiate the formation of political parties, neither did the Riots originate the call for reform of the colonial constitution and the demands for West Indian self-government, the Trinidad Labour Party of Alfred Richards and Captain Cipriani, the East Indian National Congress and Butler’s party, all pre-existed the Riots.

However, the boldness of the 1937 workers to confront the colonial establishment started an inevitable political and social movement for transformation of the society that could not be turned back nor diverted.

What was most assuredly achieved by the explosion in 1937 was a consciousness and self-confidence by workers which forced the British colonial government to at least acknowledge that the workers of Trinidad and Tobago and elsewhere in the West Indies were possessed of their humanity.

At a practical level, a couple dozen trade unions were established here in T&T and dozens more elsewhere in the West Indies as a direct result of the Riots. To facilitate the emergence of the unions and fashion something of a functioning industrial environment, a legislative agenda took root in the Legislative Council.



Historical opinion is divided on whether or not the change advocated by and made as a result of the Moyne and Forster commissions of enquiry, which were instituted by the British Government to investigate the causes of the riots, had a significant positive impact.


Compared to the advances made in the decades after by the trade unions and the general labour movement, the changes which followed the commissions seem insignificant. However, the reports of the commissions indicated that the pre-1937 conditions could not continue to exist if there were to be social and industrial peace and the opportunity for economic advance.

In the decade which followed 1937, the agitation for constitutional reform by emerging political parties and individuals culminated with the granting of Adult Franchise first in Jamaica (1944) and in Trinidad and Tobago in 1946.

Adult Franchise gave the right to everyone 21 years and over, whatever their social and economic condition, to elect members to the Legislative Council and eventually made it possible for the elected members of the people to be part of the colonial executive. 

Increased wages and living conditions for workers in oil, sugar, on the port and elsewhere did not undergo dramatic change but there was an advance.


To illustrate the point, the workers of 1937 asked for a 6 cents per hour increase; they received 4 cents. 


The barracks in towns such as Fyzabad and on the sugar estates in Central did not de-materialise after the strike ended, and the dehumanizing racist structure of the society continued for many decades after.

The space for the emergence of middle class politicians and their parties was created because workers had confronted the establishment. Ultimately, the formation of the People’s National Movement and People’s Democratic Party, the later being the forerunner to the DLP and UNC, emerged when they did because of the intervention of the workers in the 1930s. 

Political role


Interestingly however, labour-trade union involvement in politics declined as Butler and his party, denied the legitimate right to be part of the colonial government in 1950, ceased being electorally and politically viable.

Accounting too for the demise of labour in active political and electoral activities was the reality that electors began to require their politicians to be educated in the formal sense to be able to confront the colonial establishment to win benefits for the society. 

In contemporary time when trade union leaders and the movement express political ideas and ambitions, they are charged for “playing politics”.


Quite an irony when it is considered that it was the political action of workers and their leaders which instituted political change here and across the West Indies.

The Trinidad case is different to other places in the Caribbean where labour parties predominated. One argument has it that political mobilisation along racial lines here took over from the class-based politics of the 1930s.        

Over the last decade and more, labour leaders and the trade union movement have begun to express an interest in returning to the political arena. Question for the immediate future is whether labour can break the race-based political culture and persuade its membership to envisage their future in labour politics.

A couple weeks ago, I watched interestingly as bank workers, mainly women, with a measure of not being absolutely sure of this new role,  marched and chanted labour songs and slogans.  Butler, Cipriani, Rienzi and those who engaged in the life and death struggle of the 1930s may feel justifiably but pleasantly shocked. 

The inability to cohere over a sustained period in the interest of labour/workers has surely worked against the unions. Unity of purpose is their political challenge for the immediate future.

(Tony Fraser is a veteran journalist and editor)