The trade union movement in Trinidad and Tobago really came into its own in the 1930s. Prior to this, the relationship between operators or owners of businesses, whether agricultural or otherwise, and those who were employed by them, tended to be along the lines of masters and servants. Workers, conditioned by the plantation lifestyle and the force of colonial might, which indoctrinated all involved with a certain stereotype of roles along ethnic and gender lines, more often than not just accepted existing conditions, even if it meant near starvation for them. They saw themselves as dependent on one hand on the Almighty God, whose providence made it possible to grow food in a tropical island, and on the other on the generosity of the boss or the proprietor.
Historians affirm that the patois-speaking Catholic black and mixed Trinidadians tended to be subservient to the system, whereas the Small Islanders, in particular the Barbadians, tended to be more independent and more aggressive.
From the 1840s, people from the other islands had come to Trinidad in quantity in search of work and a better standard of living. They came from both Protestant and Catholic islands, and as a result had known different cycles of religious festivals. The islands they came from had known slavery since the early 16th century, and there was virtually no coloured middle class there as existed in Trinidad.
Those immigrants assimilated into Creole life in Trinidad, but also kept a lot of their own history and culture. They didn’t necessarily stay on the land, but joined Trinidadians in small trades and crafts.
The Workingmen's Association was at the turn of the 20th century an aspect of the reform movements, and its membership was made up mostly of urban middle class liberals. The process to militancy would require a crucible, which as it turned out was the advent of industrialisation. Several circumstances began to arrange themselves, not the least of which was the demobilisation of thousands of men who had seen foreign service during the first world war. The stereotype of the master-servant relationship along ethnic lines was considerably softened up.
Another factor was the repatriation of migrants from Panama after the completion of the Canal. Many of these were cash-rich, and a lot of them did not return to their own islands, which were by comparison to Trinidad rather backward and prudish, but rather came here.
The nature of the black Creole lifestyle was changing. There was still the pursuit of respectability, of education and of European culture. There was still the overwhelming need to be accepted by the white pastor, the white overseer, the white madame, if only as a fellow human being. But for those who came of age in the 1920s, new ideas such as generated by Marcus Garvey came into play, which were based on personal pride and belief in oneself as a being that creates futures.
The literature of the time affected the thinking of workers, too. It was often banned, and hard to come by, badly printed brochures on cheap paper. The ideas were expressed in little newspapers, such as “The People”, “Trinidad” and “The Beacon”, which all served to define a greater political awareness for a wider circle of people.
Essentially, the social divide in Trinidad was between capital and labour. This became heightened by the fact that capital and labour were visibly different: the small employer class was white, the workers were black or Indian. There was hardly any political representation - only 6% of the entire population had the right to vote. The governor had direct personal rule. All power, all responsibility was centered on him.
Before the transatlantic cable, it took weeks to communicate with the Colonial Office in London. The governor was basically responsive only to the propertied interest. The landowners, the factory owners, the business and shop owners: these were regarded as the people with ‘responsible opinion’ who had ‘a stake in the country’. All others had neither voice nor vote. This situation was in fact not unique to Trinidad, but was the case the world over; certainly in England.
It is difficult for us, born in affluent times where opportunities for self-improvement actually exist for those with ambition and determination, to comprehend the dead-end poverty and the stifling frustration of the period between the wars. When with the great depression things suddenly took a turn for even worse, however, it was hard for all to accept. Money vanished. There was little to buy.
The situation was summed up in Growling Tiger's "Money is King", where the calypsonian says that a lot of education and "broughtupsy" will not help anybody in obtaining food in hard times as these. I quote here from Dr. Gordon Rohlehr's 'Calypso and Society':
"Money is King begins with the assertion that if a man has money people will overlook his leprosy or crime and grant him the highest social status.
But if you are poor, de people tell you 'shoo'
And a dog is better than you'
This thesis is then relentlessly illustrated stanza by stanza. A rich man receives extended credit while a poor man, including the gentleman or scholar fallen on hard times and reduced to eating in a cook shop, will not be credited even a penny by the illiterate proprietor, who will instead mock at his discomfiture.
'A man with a collar and tie and waiscoat
Ask de Chinee man to trus' him accra and float
"Me no trus' am," bawl out de Chinee man,
"You better move on from me fryin' pan.
You college man; me no know ABC
You want-am Accra, gi-am penny."
The worms start to jump in the man's belly
And he cry out 'A dog is better than me!'
Both the well-bread dog and the cur stand a better chance of survival than the poor man, whose very good breeding may reduce his instinct for the hard 'scrunt' of survival.
'A dog can walk about and take up bone
Fowl head, stale bread, fish tail and pone
If it's a good breed and not too wild
Some people will take it and mind as a child.
But when a hungry man goes out to beg
They will set a bulldog behind his leg.
Forty policemen will chuck him down too
You see where a dog is better than you.'"
Even for people who had jobs, the total collapse of the economy in the early 30s brought with it a dramatic increase in the size of tasks and a decrease in pay packets. Smallholders of 2 to 6 acres were badly affected. Many lost their ancestral lands. Sir Norman Lamont, and English planter and member of the Legislative Council, remarked on the system of indebtedness to the local shopkeepers. Dr. Susan Craig in her book 'Smiles and Blood' recounts his speech given to the Legislature in 1938:
"These smallholders are fattened up, as it were, on this bad system of debt until they are ripe for the slaughter and ready for their larger neighbour or the shopkeeper to squeeze them out or buy them in. Everybody is doing it, even the best people!"
Lamont went on to point out over 100 cases in the Manzanilla district who complained that they were no longer paid in cash, but with purchase orders which they could redeem at the local shop. Often the shops did not have the goods required, so they gave the cash less 25% interest. There was also the practice of giving tokens instead of cash. Many estates paid in tokens which could only be redeemed at shops which were owned by Chinese and Portuguese shop-keepers, whose ancestors had come in the mid-19th century.
The wholescale cheating of illiterate people, indebtedness at high rates of interest, lower prices to the smallholder whose crop were mortgaged to the local shop, reduced access to further credit - all this led countless people to the loss of their land, either to the estates or to the shops.
It was a time of merciless usury. Governor Sir Murchison Fletcher (1936 - 1937) remarked:
"When I arrived in Trinidad, I was somewhat painfully impressed by the poverty here.."
It was a time in our history when the interest of the state was hand in glove with the interest of the propertied. It was also a time of official deafness. The authorities could not or would not hear the voices of the people. They ignored the hunger marches, the petitions, the calypsoes; they dismissed the hanging together of hunger, unemployment, economic depression and worker militancy.
The fuse was getting shorter, but no one was paying attention. As far as the governor or the Secretary of State for the Colonies were concerned, there were about 20 men in the colony who really mattered. These were the men who spoke for oil, asphalt, sugar, cocoa and commerce: all that mattered for a "respectable opinion".
Ultimately, political power resided in the ability to control sanctions, particularly by force. The armed forces during that period were organised as follows:
The first line of defense was the local police, mainly black with English officers. The second line of defense was the volunteer force, mainly white-collar workers and led by local whites and expatriate managers. The volunteer force was in fact and extension of the alliance of state and capital. This was an endowment of the rich with police and military powers to shoot to preserve their superior position. In the event of the police and volunteers failing to control unrest in the population, imperial troops and ships were called upon to protect the interest of property. As Dr. Craig sums it up:
"Thus, the employer class was also vital to the defense of the colony and collaborated when imperial troops intervened by providing accommodation and food for them. In so doing, when workers struck a blow at poverty, they were striking too at the state and the whole structure of colonialism."
And what had happened to the "black masses"? Firstly, they were not "asses", as the popular rhyme suggests. They were, however, extremely poor, living in hopeless conditions comparable in the Caribbean today probably with Haiti. Children, whose bellies were bloated and whose navels hang out in a hernia due to malnutrition, shoe-less families, hopeless adolescents: they nevertheless knew exactly what was going on. They knew that the colonial government offered no options, and they knew that they were producing raw materials for things that came back manufactured, and unaffordable to them. They knew they were totally dependent on the patrimony of the colonial establishment.
In the 19th century, loyalty to the British crown was absolute, even or probably especially so by the colonials. To understand this from today's perspective, one can probably compare it to the absolute acceptance and devotion that Catholics all over the world feel towards a Polish Pope who reigns from the far-away peninsula of Italy. This loyalty also diminished in the 20th century. War, increasing communication, and the movies from America that illuminated the silver screens all over Trinidad contributed to this paradigm shift. All of a sudden, the "black masses" realised that white people too were poor, cussed, and were 'ketching their ass'! From then on, the image of the "white man" was no longer exclusive. The Second World War and the stationing of thousands of American servicemen contributed even more to that: in a country of 750,000 mainly coloured and Indian people, there appeared on the streets all of a sudden 500,000 young American men! For many Trinidadians, it only now became ordinary to deal with European-looking people on a day-to-day basis.
But all in all, it was the grinding poverty that drove the black masses and the enlightened elements of the creole middle class to make a change. The strike in the oil fields started on Saturday, June 19th, 1937. By evening, the police attempted to arrest the union leader Uriah Butler, resulting in the death of a police corporal and an inspector. On the following day, Sunday, H.M.S. Ajax was ordered to Trinidad. Governor Fletcher went to the oil belt. The following week, the second cruiser, H.M.S. Exeter, arrived in Port of Spain. Within days, the strike is over.
In 1937, the workers won the right to organise trade unions, but this was accompanied by the determination of the ruling class to control these unions in a way that the gain to labour would be nullified. The establishments of labour departments was an attempt to achieve this.
This entire period of the 1930s was a formative one in the shaping of the modern Caribbean. There were significant reforms; among them was universal adult franchise and political decolonisation. Labour had thrust itself onto the political arena. After the war, labour evolved into mass political parties, ultimately opening the way for West Indian nationalism and political independence.