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The challenge for labour
The labour riots of 1937 (75th anniversary) 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 Capt Cipriani, the East Indian National Congress and Butler’s party all pre-dated the riots.
However, the boldness of the 1937 workers in confronting 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 among workers which forced the British colonial government at least to acknowledge that the workers of T&T and elsewhere in the West Indies were possessed of 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 T&T in 1946.
Adult franchise gave the right to everyone 21 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.
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 six cents per hour increase; they received four cents. The barracks in towns such as Fyzabad and on the sugar estates in central did not dematerialise after the strike ended, and the dehumanising 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 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.
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 times, when trade-union leaders and the movement express political ideas and ambitions, they are charged with “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 from 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. The 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.
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