Warm greetings to all participants in this celebration of the 83rd anniversary of the workers’ rebellion of June 19, 1937.
June 19 is the day when the nation pauses to recognize and pay respect to the workers of the country and to acknowledge their achievements. Eighty-three years ago, on this day, the workers in the oil industry rose up in resistance against colonial domination and exploitation of the working people in Trinidad and Tobago. Soon they were joined by workers in the sugar industry as well as other sectors of the economy.
This year, 2020, is also the centennial year of the 1919-1920 riots and strikes that marked the beginning of the prolonged agitation that changed the face of social and political affairs in the country.
As a result of those early acts of resistance the death knell of British colonialism in the Caribbean was sounded in Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of the Caribbean. The militancy of the workers at Forest Reserve, and Apex Oilfields in Fyzabad, started a chain reaction throughout the length and breadth of the country and, in due course, throughout the entire British West Indies. The rumblings and grumblings from these small islands, a “warning from the West Indies”, echoed throughout the world and helped to usher in a new anti-colonial sentiment that ultimately was unstoppable in its effects.
As a result, between 1937 and 1962 Trinidad and Tobago was transformed in the relatively short space of twenty-five years. Trade unions and political parties grew to maturity, the people agitated and attempted to take control of their own affairs, and the colony was replaced by the country.
One of the prime purposes of today’s celebration is to pay homage and honor to the leaders and the participants in the events of that day. Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler, the recognized leader of that movement, the leadership of the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association, and George Weekes, Basdeo Panday, Joe Young, Raffique Shah and other prominent leaders of the workers’ movement are important pillars in the establishment of our nation state.
The movement that Butler formed, the organizations that he inspired, collaborated with, and in some cases fought against, laid the basis for popular participation in national politics and made possible the development of the national sovereignty that we have today. With the efforts of Butler and his brave and hardy band of followers, and others like him, Crown Colony government was eventually overthrown in this country, clearing the way for sovereignty and independence.
The little village of Fyzabad emerged as one of the most important departure points from which the global decolonization movement developed. The serious determination and resolve on the part of the workers, and the riots and strikes that started on this hallowed spot, provided an example that inspired others everywhere. What happened in Trinidad and Tobago in 1937, repeated itself in Barbados and Jamaica in 1938 and intensified the pressure on the besieged system of British colonialism. Today, it should be a continuing inspiration for the work that this generation must do to defend the gains of 1937.
WHAT WERE THOSE GAINS?
First of all, 1937 put a halt to the rapacious plunder and oppression of the laboring population that was ongoing in the oil and sugar industries and in other places of employment. It did not stop it, but it slowed it down considerably. The starvation wages paid before 1937 were slightly increased by a few cents per day. The workers got more, but not much more. And the problem of low wages and bad working conditions continued to be a major problem. Employers continued to control the economy, to make enormous profits, and to live the good life. Workers continued to struggle and protest.
Secondly, trade unions made their appearance. The Oilfields Workers Trade Union, and the All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Workers Trade Union emerged under the leadership of Butler and A.C. Rienzi to the detriment of the long established Trinidad Workingmen’s Association. So did collective bargaining, and the benefits that flowed from these developments.
Freedom from tort, the eight-hour day, overtime, the opportunity to fight for the improvement of working conditions and a lot else that is taken for granted these days, dates from the 1930’s and the triumph of the working people engaged in those early struggles. Even the constables and other lower ranked policemen credited Butler with giving them access to “khaki”, opening up opportunities to higher ranks in the service.
Finally, from the bowels of the trade union movement, directly or indirectly, acknowledged or unacknowledged, welcomed or opposed, popular political parties emerged to promote and represent the interests of the masses of the people who had made them possible. The TWA was transformed, to its detriment, into the Trinidad Labour Party, and the Cipriani era came to a close. The machinations of the old colonial system turned to the task of impeding the development of the new forces and Butler’s own attempts at party formation were, literally, brutalised and beaten into the ground. The triumph of anti-colonial nationalism had to wait another day and the emergence of the Peoples National Movement in the 1950’s.
In the hundred years since the riots and strikes of 1919-20 the colonialists have never had a political party of their own to represent their interests. They had power, they had privilege; but they had no party and efforts to build one were largely unavailing. Today they still have no party, but they are adept at claiming control of parties that the people build. The masses build parties because they could not fight as trade unionists alone. But they have been like cannon fodder, providing votes for political organizations destined to genuflect at the altar of established power and privilege once the elections are over. All over the Caribbean, in fact throughout the Latin American, African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, with few exceptions, mass parties of the people, which have come to power and to prominence with the initiative and support of the people, have been captured and seduced into acting against the best interests of those who gave them birth.
So today we are celebrating the 83rd anniversary of the 1937 riots and strikes, a signal event in the development of the country, and it is interesting that the question we have to face once again is the question of race and economic inequality. We have faced this question before. We faced it when the slaves were enslaved. We faced it when and after the slaves were emancipated in 1838. We faced it in 1838-1919. We faced it again in 1919-1920. We faced it in 1937. And we are facing it again in 2020. But this time we are facing it in significantly different circumstances.
RACISM AND SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC INEQUALITY BACK ON THE AGENDA
Racism and social and economic inequality, dismissed by the propagandists, as “victimhood” issues peddled by troublemakers, are confronting not only small island Caribbean nations with a colonial past but rending and tearing asunder the major industrialised countries of the world. Racial discrimination and exploitation, which some folk were quick to relegate to the distant past, have come roaring back onto the modern agenda.
In the United States, as we celebrate Labour Day, the sons and daughters of slaves and their descendants are celebrating Juneteenth, the final emancipation of the enslaved people on June 19,1865, more than two years after Abraham Lincoln had issued the Abolition Proclamation on January 1,1863. And while they celebrate, they also mourn. They mourn the destruction of the Black Wall Street community and the massacre of more than 300 men, women and children in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 1, 1921. And they mourn the ongoing and continuing brutalisation and murder of Black men and women by racist police even in the face of worldwide condemnation and denunciation.
A significant factor in the present conundrum is, of course, the pestilential coronavirus which is sickening millions and killing off hundreds of thousands the world over. The international economy has been severely disrupted and might well be, if the worst is realised, brought to a halt. At the time of writing, the total confirmed number of cases worldwide is about 8,000,000 and the number of deaths is closing in on 500,000. Those figures could easily double if the present run rate continues. It is not an exaggeration to say that life as we know it has been, and continues to be, fundamentally destabilized.
For petroleum and gas producing countries like Trinidad and Tobago the situation is particularly testing given the challenges facing the international petroleum and gas sectors. It was not too long ago that authors were lamenting the approaching attainment of “peak oil”, that is to say the exhaustion of oil reserves by virtue of dwindling supplies and excessive demands on a finite resource. In fact, the reverse is true. Today supply greatly exceeds demand and the industry as a whole is in a state of global turmoil. In addition, Guyana is now a rising source of additional oil supply within CARICOM.
As for natural gas, Trinidad and Tobago was extracting and exporting the liquefied product decades before the first LNG plant was built and commissioned in the United States. Unfortunately for Trinidad and Tobago, the US is now a major exporter of LNG, is no longer a secure market, and is in fact a ferocious competitor marketing the product worldwide. Also, the eventual abandonment of fossil fuels and their replacement by sustainable alternatives is like a sword of Damocles threatening the long term integrity of oil and gas, and the economies that depend on them.
Politically, in the era of globalization the crises that used to be primarily critical for agricultural, manual and industrial workers in colonial and Third World environments are today ripping apart the societies of the major industrial countries. Social sectors that turned a blind eye to the struggles of the workers when the workers were struggling alone, and thought themselves immune from distress, are today present in the demonstrations and the marches stimulated by the current crises. Black Lives Matter is an international refrain repeated again and again, not only by Black people, but clearly by thousands and thousands of white people, young and old, themselves the casualties -collateral damage- of the capitalist order. George Floyd, unknown even in his own country a short while ago, is now firmly established in the pantheon of civil rights leaders, rubbing shoulders with Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.
CRISES ARE EVERYWHERE
Crises are everywhere. The question is not where crises are, but where they are not. Serious economic, political and social turbulence is challenging the viability of the most developed economies and the most developed states. In the main capitalist countries, unemployment rates in excess of 15 percent are now commonplace. Reckless capitalist speculation and corruption, the collapse of venerable and powerful financial institutions in the leading capitalist countries, the super-exploitation of the ordinary people by the super-capitalist individuals and organizations stoke the fires of suffering and despair. Taxpayer revenues are diverted to shore up and support, and even to reward, the individuals and corporations that created these problems in the first place.
And there are consequences, some of them unheard of until the present period. Factory floors are increasingly abandoned. Those who can are working at home. The pre-industrial, cottage industry is making a return. International travel is at a virtual standstill. Sporting events are postponed, some seemingly indefinitely. The statues of historical scoundrels are pulled down and unceremoniously dumped. Airplanes are grounded. Hotels, theatres, movie houses, places of worship, schools, colleges and universities are empty, half-empty or closed, uncertainly wondering what the future will bring. The hospitals and clinics are strained and overwhelmed; many of them are running on full. As for the printing presses, they are operating non-stop, disgorging billions and trillions of dollars and other currencies. The menace of an economic armageddon is on everybody’s lips and the major central banks in the world, and the IMF and the World Bank, have openly committed themselves to doing whatever is necessary to obviate its impact.
Interestingly, the remedies look increasingly socialistic, more and more statist, less and less capitalistic. Factors of production, scarcity, supply and demand, free market, globalizing and neo-liberal principles, de-regulation and the whole claptrap of the Friedman, Hayek, Pinochet, Chicago school of economics are abandoned like garbage at the side of the road. The Paycheck Protection Program and the Universal Basic Income, implemented not only in the United States but widely in the periphery of global imperialism throughout the world, are signs of the times. It used to be that the people who created the crisis were determined that workers should pay for it. And they have been succeeding so far. Profits and bonuses for the corporations and captains of industry are still skyrocketing while the unemployment figures and the food lines are growing. But the panic induced by the present crisis is prioritizing survival above everything else.
Conservative and right wing political interests, accustomed to expending vast amounts of money and influence to normalize the accelerated exploitation of ordinary people in the interests of the chosen few, have now arrived at the startling conclusion that economies are about people, and that people who cannot survive, cannot consume and cannot work are ripping the sensitive underbelly of the capitalist system. The circulation of money and the circulation of assets and resources are what make economies economic. Money and assets and resources don’t move themselves; people do. If, for whatever reason, man can’t move and woman can’t work, economies can’t exist, or maybe only if they are radically different from the economies of today.
And the major economies of today have features unheard of in the not too distant past. The leading capitalist countries are structurally dependent on China, a communist country, for markets, for capital investment, and critical supply chains of strategic assets. Personal protective equipment that frontline doctors and nurses need to fight the virus in the US are imported from China. The battle over 5G technology is pitting the US and China in toe to toe combat. Venture capitalists are anticipating the dramatic opening up of the Indian economy hoping against hope that the phenomenon, when it happens, will add vim and vigour to the capitalist world. Those inclined to look further afield are positioning themselves to reap the rewards of an early involvement in Africa, and a new race for resources in the continent.
This is where we are in 2020, and only the foolhardy can dare to predict where we will be in 2021. In all the mayhem that is taking place the dominant question in democratic politics remains what it has always been in the age of independence. In this maelstrom of challenges can parties of the people govern for the people? This is the question that should be in the minds of everybody today. It is a question calling urgently for an answer. That answer, when it comes, will undoubtedly reflect the unusual characteristics of this centennial year 2020.
Dr. James Millette is a Trinidadian scholar whose specialty is Caribbean history and whose expectations are that one day the Caribbean people “will rise”. He has lived and worked in the Caribbean, in the United Kingdom and in the United States.
He was the leader of the United National Independence Party and the publisher of the Moko newspaper in the 1960s-1970s. He was the general secretary of the United Labour Front which fought the 1976 elections.