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Labouring to become a united force
Today, June 19, is the 75th anniversary of organised labour in Trinidad and Tobago. To mark the occasion, representatives of most of the country’s trade unions will gather at Fyzabad, birthplace of the local labour movement, for their annual march and rally. This very significant event is taking place against the backdrop of a divided labour movement, as well as the departure of the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ)—the closest thing to a labour party in T&T—from the ruling coalition, the People’s Partnership. Apparently abandoning his deep and longstanding trade-union past, Labour Minister Errol Mc Leod, the MSJ’s founding political leader, has opted to stay in the Government, holding on to his ministerial portfolio rather than the political party he helped establish. Mr Mc Leod, once the militant and out-spoken leader of the OWTU, seems to be at odds with his former comrades in the “blue-shirt army,” including his successor, Ancel Roget and the MSJ’s current leader, David Abdulah.
There is also a rift between the Watson Duke-led PSA and the rest of the trade-union sector over Mr Duke’s acceptance of a five per cent wage increase from Government last year. For the second consecutive year, the PSA will not be officially represented in Fyzabad today. These are the scenarios facing trade unionists as they observe Labour Day today, exactly 75 years after oil workers at Forest Reserve, under the leadership of Tubal Uriah Butler, began the strike action which led to the birth of the movement. Sadly, all those years after workers in oil and cane fields across T&T joined in the historic struggle which earned workers the legal right to collective bargaining, there is significant disunity in the sector. This is a fact that has overshadowed almost every Labour Day celebration since June 19 became a public holiday in 1973. Back then there were two labour factions—the T&T Labour Congress and the Council of Progressive Trade Unions—and two separate Labour Day celebrations, one in Port-of-Spain and the other in Fyzabad. There was hope of unity, though fleeting, when those entities merged to form the National Trade Union Centre (Natuc) in 1991.
However, that attempt to bring trade unions under one umbrella ended in 2000, and a rival to Natuc, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and Non-Governmental Organisations (Fitun), was formed. That failure to achieve unity may be the reason why a strong, longstanding political party has never come out of the labour movement. The MSJ, which seems intent on filling that role, faces major challenges as it makes its first tentative steps, without the PP, into the political arena. While labour parties dominate the political landscape through the Caribbean, that has never been the case in T&T, so history does not suggest an easy road ahead for the MSJ. The Democratic Labour Party (DLP), the opposition party between 1957 and 1971, fell apart owing to leadership struggles. It was replaced by the United Labour Front (ULF), led by Basdeo Panday and made up of trade-union elements from the sugar and oil industries. Mr Panday, leader of the All Trinidad Sugar and Factory Workers’ Trade Union, formed alliances with fellow trade union leaders, including George Weekes, Joe Young and Raffique Shah. However, they soon parted ways. The ULF, which never developed the working-class consciousness needed to sustain a labour party, evolved into the UNC—a party with little left of its labour origins—which leads the PP coalition. The MSJ, standing on the uncertain power base of a divided labour movement, now seeks to attract popular support from the electorate. Only time will tell whether they can break out of the cycle of labour fallings-outs and failures and become a major force in T&T politics.
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