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Legendary labour Leaders
Today marks the 38th year since June 19, 1973 was declared “Labour Day”, June 19 being the anniversary of the day of the “Butler Oilfield Riots” which took place in 1937. That significant date in the history of Trinidad and Tobago was the culmination of years of tension between workers and employers in various sectors of society highlighted by instances of worker abuse, underpayment for labour, racism, economic depression and falling living standards of the working class. Three of the more prominent pioneering labour leaders/trade unionists, arising out of the struggles of workers firstly in Port-of-Spain, then on the sugar plantations of central and the southern oil fields, were Andrew Arthur Cipriani, Adrian Cola Rienzi, and Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler respectively. These men are credited with bringing about the early rumblings that put Trinidad and Tobago on the road to independence. Between the three of them they set the platform for workers in all sectors (non-oil/sugar, oil and sugar) to challenge those in authority for the betterment of all..
ARTHUR ANDREW CIPRIANI (1875-1945)
A soldier at first, later achieving the rank of Captain in the British West India Regiment in World War I, he became a leader not just to the ex-soldiers but to labourers also, becoming well known throughout Trinidad and Tobago as the champion of ‘the barefooted man’. In November 1919, during a labour dispute on the Port-of-Spain wharves, Cipriani called on the workers to strike, resulting in their first important industrial strike in Trinidad. In 1921 with his popularity increasing he was elected to a seat on the City Council of Port-of-Spain. In 1923, he was elected president of the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association, at that time the country’s leading workers’ organisation and in 1925 became Mayor of Port-of-Spain, which propelled him to a seat on the Legislative Council in Trinidad’s first general elections. On the Legislative Council he championed key issues such as “old age” pension, women’s rights, a minimum wage, compulsory education, an end to plantation child labour and the end of the Crown Colony System.
In 1934, he formed the Trinidad Labour Party, which was really the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association under a new title to give it its political thrust. During his tenure he had the likes of Uriah Butler and Adrian Cola Rienzi as close comrades both of whom left the ranks in 1936 to form their own parties when attention began to turn to the plight of the oilfields workers and the families of sugar cane workers, the latter group Cipriani also credited as being an advocate for before Rienzi took up the mantle. Cipriani, a solicitor, retired from public life in 1944, having never lost his seat on the City Council since he had first been elected in 1921 along with his record eight terms as Mayor. A statue to his memory was erected in Port-of-Spain at the base of Frederick Street unveiled on April 17, 1959, by Chief Minister Dr Eric Williams: “Captain Cipriani is the pioneer of the nationalist movement of Trinidad and Tobago. With the unveiling of this statue we commemorate our own historical development, our own positive action, our own native history made by native hands, and the aspiration of our native peoples.” Cipriani Boulevard in Port-of-Spain and Cipriani College of Labour and Cooperative Studies are also named in his honour.
Adrian Cola Rienzi (1905-1972)
Born Krishna Deonarine, a high school drop-out due to family circumstances, he became an avid reader learning about Cola di Rienzo, a fourteenth century Italian activist and patriot who organised and fought great battles on behalf of workers. In 1927, Deonarine changed his name to Adrian Cola Rienzi, after a British magistrate, Adrian Clarke and Cola di Rienzo and eventually became a lawyer in spite of his early educational setbacks. A close comrade of Cipriani in the fight for the betterment of the working class with the passion to make Trinidad a better place, he parted ways with Cipriani’s party/union in 1936 to champion workers in the sugar cane industry in central Trinidad. The same year as Butler did similarly to champion the plight of workers in the oil industry that was, like the sugar cane industry, based outside of Port-of-Spain, in the ‘oil belt’ in south Trinidad. Rienzi was the first president of the Trinidad and Tobago Trades Union Council , from its foundation in 1938 until 1944. He had earlier been instrumental in the formation of the Trinidad Citizens’ League (1934), a party closely aligned to the sugar industry.
In November 1937 the All Trinidad Sugar Estate and Factory Workers Trade Union (ATSEFWTU) was registered, with Rienzi now president of both the Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) and ATSEFWT, both of which he founded. In 1939 the Trade Union Congress (TUC) was established and Rienzi elected its first president. He also represented ‘labour’ at the Forster and Moynes commissions.
As a lawyer he intensified his personal opposition against all attempts of exploitation of workers. In addition to pushing for workers rights, Rienzi also fought for the rights of Indo-Trinidadians helping to secure more employment in the public service as well as the right to cremate, the recognition of Hindu and Muslim marriages and the setting up of schools by non-Christian religious denominations. In addition to being a Member of the Legislative Council from 1937-1944, he was also the Mayor of San Fernando from 1939 to 1942 and served four terms on the San Fernando Borough Council. He was a member of the franchise committee appointed in 1941, and strongly advocated universal adult suffrage. He stoutly defended Uriah Butler’s agitation in the oil belt in June 1937 and did his best to defend his comrade becoming his legal counsel in the charges that were brought against him. During the two year period that Butler was jailed and subsequent detention on war security grounds, Rienzi made all efforts to keep the Butler’s supporters together and his image alive so that upon his release in 1945, he was warmly welcomed back. Adrian Cola Rienzi’s long stint in the Legislative Council saw him working tirelessly for the end of the Crown Colony System and the coming in of Adult Franchise. A prominent building in the heart of what once was the ‘sugar belt in Couva, central Trinidad, is named the Rienzi Complex in his honour.
Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler (1897-1977)
Grenadian-born who gravitated to his hero Captain Cipriani from World War I and to the flourishing T&T oil industry in 1921 when he moved to Trinidad. In 1929, he was injured in an industrial accident at his job as a rig man/pipe fitter that left him with a permanent limp and no compensation. Becoming a preacher, known for his fiery style, that sometimes rubbed people the wrong way, he began to champion in earnest those in predicaments like him, workers with grievances and adverse working conditions.
He wholeheartedly embraced the labour movement and its cause, joining Cipriani’s Trinidad Labour Party but leaving it and his mentor in 1936 to fight more aggressively for his beliefs and workers’ rights. In 1935, he led a ‘hunger’ march from the oil belt of Fyzabad, Siparia and Point Fortin to Port-of-Spain, to highlight the workers’ demands. In 1936, he formed his own party, the British Empire Workers and Citizen Home Rule Party (BEW&CHRP) and in 1937 organised a sit down strike that proved to be a catalyst in the development of the labour movement. The demonstration was a peaceful one until the police tried to arrest Butler, sparking off a riot leading to carnage, including the death of policeman Charlie King after whom the junction is named in Fyzabad.
He was tried, convicted of sedition and sentenced to two years in prison fiercely defended by his comrade, lawyer and fellow labour leader Adrian Cola Rienzi. In 1939 he was made chief organiser of the OWTU but was soon expelled for his fiery and aggressive nature and stances. After engineering another strike in 1941, Butler was again imprisoned from 1941-1945, since the government regarded his disruption of oil production as a threat to the War effort. In 1945 the same year, as the death of his former mentor and leader Captain Andrew Cipriani, he was released and hailed as a hero of the working class. In 1946/7, he called a general strike, with some of his supporters storming the Red House. Even in his foray into the political arena via his political parties, culminating in The Butler Party, his focus and platform was always for the improvement of the working class. He served on the Legislative Council from 1950-1961 and ran unsuccessfully for the Elections in 1958 and in 1961. In 1969 he was officially brought back into the fold of the OWTU, made a life member and awarded the honour, The Labour Star.
In 1970, he was honoured with the Trinity Cross, T&T’s highest honour. By the time T&T gained independence in 1962, Butler’s contribution as a labour leader and his reputation as a fighter for and a hero of the working class was being widely recognised. He was regarded as a hero of the people, and in fact, he was seen as one of the first men, if not the first, who landed the first dismantling blow against colonialism, giving courage to the fighters for independence. In 1970 he was decorated with the country’s highest award, the Trinity Cross. The greatest tribute however came in 1973, when the anniversary of the oilfield riots, June 19, was declared an annual National holiday and celebrated as Labour Day. Also the former Princess Margaret Highway was renamed in his honour. In 1971, a life size statue was erected in Fyzabad in his honour.
NOTE: Earlier this year in April, Elbert Redvers Blades, the first general secretary of the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU) celebrated his 109th birthday. He is one of those credited for helping save the struggle from collapse in 1937 when Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler went into hiding to avoid arrest. Blades, a resident of Cumuto, Wallerfield, contributed significantly to the benefits now enjoyed by workers. He has fond memories of advocating alongside Butler, Cipriani and Rienzi and was awarded the Humming Bird Silver Medal in 1998 for his contribution to the trade union movement in Trinidad and Tobago. (Compiled mainly from various Nalis resources)
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