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Salute to Joe Young—the New Man
Life is a strange and almost magical mixture of chance, circumstance, context and choice all interlaced with the influence of other lives—individual and social. I recall entering the little green door and climbing the stairs of the building on Broadway, the Trestrail building if I recall correctly and there had my first brief encounter with a man who appeared almost like a gentle giant.
It was 1970 and I was 14. I had come into the hallowed hall of a small but powerful organisation and was introduced to its leader. That man was Joe Young and that place with the green door was the headquarters of the Transport and Industrial Workers’ Union (TIWU). It was the beginning of a long and inspiring relationship with the man and with his union.
At several other points in my life directly and indirectly through his wife and some of his children, as well as with the union I had the opportunity to be affected by the personality that was Joe Young. He had a powerful voice, a clinical shearing analytical mind, a tongue that could cut like razor blades with wit, fervent dissertation, deep satire, yet expressing a cosy comfort with whoever was caught in the web of his usually mutually beneficial conversation.
“Yes, comrade. How are you?” I recall him initiating many a conversation with those he considered worthy of accolade—comrade. His deep and incisive, yet simply-expressed analysis of a wide vista of issues posed by life and the workers’ struggle was matched only by his infectious humour and a deep garrulous laugh that could only invoke a vigorous workout of the facial muscles of his listener.
I recall in my later years at the PSA telling him that I had visited a former leader at a place that was his “office” on Dundonald Street. To that, he responded sharply, “There you go for bed, booze and bad advice” and that laugh followed.
In our last substantial conversation, he had warned of the plan to split NATUC (which occurred some months later). He was indignant of the idea. He had worked for so long for the unity and solidarity of the trade union movement. To follow-up our chat on Abercrombie Street, a day or two later, he sent me a document on the various attempts at trade union unity which he had authored.
He was extraordinarily deeply to the commitment of the cause of the workers’ struggle. His devotion to democratic and disciplined organisation, unflinching pursuit of and support for just causes, untiring encouragement and support of those of other generations that he perceived to be of like interest—are all hallmarks of his inspiring personality.
Those, too, are qualities of the union he founded and of those who have emerged at its leadership or have had the privilege to be among its members. Joe Young created the TIWU in his own image and likeness—a spirit of fearless devotion to the cause. That is why that union remains today, though small, a powerful organisation which has continued to churn out a succession of committed and skilful fighters.
Joe’s influence was much wider than in what he created. Since 1970, he nurtured generations of young people with a sense of taking up the historical mission of the working class. He was also a profound internationalist. On the walls of TIWU (wherever its location) were pictures of the classical leaders of the world struggle of the workers from Europe, China, Vietnam or the US.
I had cause to share some wonderful experiences as a university student with the workers of the UWI campus, among whom was a quiet, unassuming, deeply passionate and committed woman named Grace Young, his wife. His children have become very creative forces in different fields of endeavour and standard-bearers. Fruit don’t fall far from the tree, as we say.
For years, as I began and developed in my conscious life ushered in by that year of beginnings —1970, I had wondered what was this concept of the ‘new man’ which the ideological trailblazers like Karl Marx had espoused. What was this personality called a proletarian that they saw as the future of humankind.
In Joe Young I have come to have the most profound understanding of these concepts. Here was a man born and walking among the humble, pursuing their cause with passion, armed with searching skills of analysis, gifted with the art of the gab, a bold fighter and inspirational leader, yet filled with such humility and simplicity.
Joe Young was not perfect. That is too much to expect of any human being. His stature was not founded on perfection. His stature was that of a true working class hero. Our lives are so much richer for having experienced the influence of his personality. I salute Joe Young and recall a song I knew he loved the Red Flag.
Part of its lyrics goes something like this:
“So raise the scarlet standard high
Within its shade we live or die
So while cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We’ll keep the Red Flag flying there”
To Grace and Carl and the rest of the children, my deepest sympathy. To the members of TIWU—present, no longer and to come—continue to build this great union as your tribute to its founder. To all who pursue the cause of peace, justice and progress for all mankind, be inspired by the example and personality that is Joe Young.
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