In the 1920s, it was the oilfield workers who forced the hand of the all-powerful colonial government to introduce electoral participation in the lawmaking process - a mantle that inspires the O.W.T.U. and other trade unions to this day.
By the end of the First World War, the economic landscape in Trinidad had changed forever. Having taken its first halting steps into an industry-based economy, it was about to suffer several body blows.
During the war, shipping between Europe and the West Indies had been severely disrupted. Shortages of every sort halted trade, agriculture and infrastructural development. Inflation climbed to an unprecedented 145% by 1919.
The cocoa economy, so vital to the cash flow of many small and medium import-export companies, almost ceased to exist as its main markets in Europe lay in shambles. Sugar, King Sugar, was also failing on the world markets. Unemployment climbed as more and more men returned from the First World War.
These men returned with a heightened political consciousness. They returned with news of the Russian Revolution and socialism. The compensation they received from the Imperial Government left much to be desired and they resented that treatment.
‘Black consciousness’ was stimulated with the circulation of literature coming out of Jamaica’s Marcus Garvey movement. News of labour unrest in England began to trickle into Trinidad despite the censors. Indian immigration to the colony was stopped in 1917, and by 1921, indentureship had ended. Suddenly thousands of Indians who had been sheltered by that system were released into the overall labour market. The competition for jobs was becoming fierce.
The result of this was a series of strikes and social disturbances in 1919 and 1920. The strikes spread in the oil and asphalt industries, with dock and rail workers following suit. Workers’ representatives cried out against increasing inflation and low wages.
The colonial government responded to the 1920 strikes by sending out troops to crush the workers and by passing the ‘Strikes and Lockout Ordinances’ and the ‘Seditious Act and Publications Ordinances’ in an attempt to stop the strikes and to prevent subversive, inflammatory literature, such as the ‘Negro World’ from reaching the workers. A commission of inquiry, appointed by the Crown, recommended the introduction of elected members in the Legislative Council. This resulted in 6 unofficials nominated by the Governor, 7 elected unofficials, 12 officials and the Governor. The elected members were thus in the minority.
The franchise was extended to women over 30 and men over 21 years of age, with specific property and income qualifications. In fact, only 6% of the entire population was entitled to vote in the first legislative election in 1925. The turnout was very good, and Captain Arthur Cipiriani, Timothy Roodal and Sarran Teelucksingh were elected. All three were representatives of labour. For the first time, middle class labour had a voice in the lawmaking body of the colony.
Cipriani’s achievements for labour in the Legislative Council were limited. He was unable to get a law passed for an 8-hour work day, despite the fact that Britain had signed a minimum wage fixing agreement in 1925 with the International Labour Organisation. The Workingman’s Compensation Ordinance of 1926 did benefit some industrial workers, but not agricultural workers. Cipriani’s struggle against ‘the powers that be’ on behalf of the workingman faltered when he signed the report of the Wages and Advisory Board, which set the minimum wage for urban and rural workers at a level below the existing wages. Workers now understood that the process set out by the imperial government would not work for them.
The Trinidad Workingmen’s Association which had been founded in 1897 and which had its origins in the coloured intelligentsia of an earlier generation that had promoted social awareness for people of African descent became increasingly involved in the arbitration between the Government and the striking industrial and urban workers. They were marginally successful in that they got wage increases for the dock workers.
Besides the already sizzling situation at the homebase, there were other developments in the world which were to impact on Trinidad. The discovery of very large oilfields in Texas and other parts of the U.S.A. had the result of a steep decline in oil prices. From 1930 onwards, oil prices stooped from over one dollar a barrel to as low as ten cents.
Against all this, the stock market crashed. This too contributed to the oversupply of oil. Automobile production fell by some 47%.
Trinidad’s oil economy was soon caught up in this free-falling tumble as both management and staff in the oil business were laid off. Trained people left the fields, some never to return. The happy days of an easy worker-management cooperation ended abruptly. Workers could not understand what was taking place in the ‘real world’ and saw only the hunger in the faces of their families and felt only the frustration and increasing desperations in themselves.
Oil technologist George Higgins writes in his book ‘A History of Trinidad Oil’:
“The Petroleum Association of Trinidad considered all possible ways of reducing the hardship and attempted to keep as many people employed as possible. Working hours were reduced from nine to eight hours a day and drilling shifts were changed from two of twelve hours to three of eight to spread out the work.”
Every effort was made to become more cost effective. More efficient production methods resulted in a record 10 million barrels being produced in 1930. This work was to pay off as the years went by, resulting in a production of 20 million barrels ten years later in 1940.
Before this, however, some hard times lay ahead. Nature played a dreadful card in the midst of all of this. In 1933, a hurricane struck the island and oil production was severly interrupted. The hurricane - and in those days they were not decorated by names of people we know - struck the east coast at Guayaguayare at about 4 p.m. on June 26th, arriving at maximum intensity at 6 p.m., howling all night. The damage was extensive. The Mora forest, very old and very valuable to the colony’s economy, was devastated, and some of the coconut estates were destroyed forever. Infrastructural damage to roads, bridges, telephone and electricity lines was considerable. In the oil fields, 90 wooden derricks were completely destroyed and another 150 badly damaged. Wellhead connections were destroyed. The industry was brought almost to a stop. Labour, now considerably more organised, rose to the occasion and worked shoulder to shoulder with the managment to restore order and production to the devastated fields.
A new era had been inaugurated, one of collective bargaining. The Trinidad Workingmen’s Association emerged as the sole agent representing the interest of workers. Its success in the 1920 disturbances increased its prestige and its membership. By 1932, the TWA had 98 branches throughout Trinidad. Captain Arthur Cipriani had emerged as its president. A Trinidadian of aristocratic European descent, he was remarkable for his social conscience and the empathy he felt for the working class.
During the 1930s, despite increased oil production, the hardships experienced by the oilworkers only got worse. Once again nature worked against the economy. In 1934, a drought struck the colony. Hunger marches started in central Trinidad. Workers at Apex Oilfields, led by Uriah Butler of the Trinidad Labour Party, which had evolved from the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association, went on strike and planned a march on Port of Spain. The march was stopped by Cipriani and the Police. Cipriani’s condemnation of the strike action and the subsequent expulsion of Butler and Cola Rienzi from the T.L.P. placed Cipriani in approbrium in the eyes of may oilworkers even to this day.
The oilworkers grievances were real. Profits were being made, but their wages were low. White employees were living comfortably in company houses and driving cars. The steady expansion of the fields, the upgrading of plants and expertise were immediately affected by the widening unrest. Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler became more active amongst the oilfield workers and moved them to take strike action. In 1937, riots and strikes spread through the oil belt. The colonial government reacted predictably with a heavy hand.
Brutality was the order of the day, and it was played out true to form on both sides. The order to open fire on the unarmed strikers as they approached the gates at Apex unleashed a hail of bullets fired at close range from Royal Enfield 303 rifles, handled mostly by young Trinidadians of the Volunteer Company. Several people died, many were wounded. On the other hand, police corporal Karl King while he was performing his lawful duty, was murdered by a mob who burnt his still alive body. An uneasy peace settled on the colony after landing parties were put ashore from the H.M.S. Ajax and the H.M.S. Exeter.
Uriah Butler was arrested. When he was released from jail in 1939, he was welcomed back in the oilbelt with ‘warmth and adulation’, as historian Michael Anthony writes in his book ‘The Making of Port of Spain Vol 1’. As Anthony writes further:
“His old and tried companion, Rienzi, was overjoyed. Rienzi showed his feeling at a Legislative Council meeting on June 16, 1939, during a debate on public holidays. Rienzi called on Government to declare the date of the oilfield riots a public holiday in place of Empire Day. Turning to the Attoney-General, Rienzi said:’June the 19th, Sir, is a day which in the minds of the workers marks a landmark in the history of the working class movement.’ Cipriani retorted:’All those who have the best interests of the working classes at heart would like to forget forever June 19 and are not asking for the making of a day for the adulation of false heroes.’”
This holiday was not granted until 1973, and one could ask if the murder of King, a policeman, should be celebrated.
As George Higgins, author of ‘A History of Trinidad Oil’, concludes his chapter about the years of depression and recovery (1930 - 1939):
“By 1939, operations were back to normal and looking up. But on the horizon and across the seas in Europe the war clouds were looming, soon to break and affect profoundly the direction in which the Trinidad operations were heading.”