THE HISTORICAL ORIGIN OF
THE ALL TRINIDAD SUGAR AND GENERAL WORKERS TRADE UNION
By Ashvani Mahabir - Past Education & Research Officer
The First World War is generally considered an important watershed in the development of political thought in Trinidad and Tobago. The immediate postwar years was marked by an upsurge of radical political activity and labour organization. Economic hardships that had followed led to the establishment of the East Indian Destitute League, which began to agitate on behalf of impoverished Indians, clamor for the abolition of Indentureship and the repatriation of all Indians back to India. The rich merchant elite had imposed strikingly high prices, which created further restlessness and despair. The inevitable strike action fused industrial grievances with political demands. It was a mere demonstration of the potential strength of organized labour. Incidentally it was a period of co-operation between Indian and black workers who were both demanding higher wages. It was also a period marked by a thirst for constitutional reform, but of the Commissions established to pursue such changes, none included representative of the Indian plantation working class. It was the Governor who pointed out that there was callous retrenching and over tasking at the sugar companies. In 1934 the Trinidad Labour Party (TLP) was formed, Captain A.A. Cipriani having finally decided to register a political party as opposed to a "workingmen's association". In that same year sugar workers took to the streets, though it did not meet with the favour of Cipriani. The country was also experiencing something of a cultural renaissance, capable of instilling further pride amongst workers.
Then it all culminated in the riots of June 1937. The deteriorating economic conditions had become unbearable; poverty was on the rise, workplace related injuries and sickness had doubled, malnutrition and overcrowding ruled supreme and infant mortality was as high as 127 per thousand. Organized trade unionism was the natural consequence of the 1937 riots. Adrian Cola Rienzi (formerly Krishna Deonarine), who had earlier shot to prominence as the President of the Southern branch of the Trinidad Workingmen's Association, was now called upon to lead the Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) and the All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Workers Trade Union (ATSEFWU). By the end of 1937 unions evolved to represent workers inthe field of railway and construction, woodwork, waterfront and public works.
In this early period, the ATSEFWU encouraged the Governor to set up a Joint Sugar Control Board, which sought to reconcile the competing aims Of Union and Company. In 1945, the first Collective Agreement setting out the working relationship between the workers and the Sugar Company was signed signaling a new era in the trade union movement. It was Rienzi who pioneered these early successes and he must be remembered for his efforts at labour unity.
In 1953 amidst much internal struggle and rivalry, a rival Federation of Unions of Sugar Workers and Cane Farmers emerged, with Bhadase Sagan Maraj at the helm. All Trinidad was led by Anthony Geoffrey and Oli Mohammed at this time. Eventually, this Federation merged with All Trinidad and as a seemingly natural consequence, Maraj assumed leadership. Maraj is best remembered for introducing trade unionism amongst the lower management levels of the sugar Company. His leadership style was unique; it was forceful, some even called it dictatorial. It is said however, that Maraj failed to democratize the Union and that to some extent he alienated the rank and file. What was considered his strength, was perhaps also his biggest weakness. Maraj died in 1971 and his passing would have signaled a new chapter in the history of All Trinidad.
When Maraj died, the then Secretary General Rampartap Singh, approached a southern based Attorney-a-Law, Basdeo Panday, who had been associated with the OWTU, to lead the Union out of the leadership crisis. Panday, had abandoned an opportunity to further his academic development to advance the aspirations of the working class. When he accepted the Leadership position, Panday had little option but to forge a closer link with the membership of the Union. He quickly realized that a greater level of democracy had to be encouraged to instill patriotism within the Union. He knew that he had to integrate the working class and to do this he started meeting with all the workers and by establishing councils and delegations as a means of encouraging transparency. When the internal reorganization was complete, he began to work towards securing a higher standard of living for workers and towards ensuring guaranteed work. Under his leadership the membership of the Union doubled to include persons in the food, processing, arment, catering, construction and travel industries. As a result, the name All Trinidad Sugar and General Workers Trade Union evolved to reflect this new organization. Bro. Basdeo Panday eventually led the Union until 1995 when in his capacity as leader of the United National Congress, he was able to form the Government and was appointed Prime Minister of the Republic. He was subsequently named an Honorary President because of the invaluable contribution he had made to its development.
With Basdeo Panday having to give up the leadership to run the affairs of State, there was an immediate need to fill the vacuum. That was when the experienced Boysie More Jones emerged. Jones had been involved with the Union since 1965 having been an employee of the company since early in the 1950's. In 1978 he was recruited as a Grievance Officer by the then leader, Basdeo Panday after serving successfully as President of his Branch. In 1983 he became head of the Department of Industrial Relations and in 1985 he was elected to the position of Second Vice President. In the early 1990's when Bro. Panday had to perform the functions of the Leader of the Opposition, Bro. Jones was called upon to fulfill the role of leader of the Union. It was during this period that he literally learnt the art of leadership. When Panday became the Prime Minister in 1995, Jones acted as the President General. In 1998, after a fierce battle for leadership, Jones emerged as the Leader of the Union and a mandate to take the Union forward for the next three years. In the year 2001, Jones who had turned 65 decided to inject new participation and to give way at the leadership level.
Experience soon gave way to Youth. Bro. Rudranath Indarsingh, who himself had been involved in Trade Unionism for much of his life was the natural successor and Bro. Jones did not hesitate to recommend him. The University graduate, who had done significant work in the Department of Education years before, accepted the challenge to lead the Union as a seemingly natural progression of his labour background. From the Education department he was elected to the post of General Secretary becoming one of the youngest persons to hold on to such a position. Then his meteoric rise to prominence led him to the office of the President General. At the age of 32, he is perhaps the youngest leader of any Trade Union in the Commonwealth Caribbean. In the very short time that he has been at the helm, Bro. Indarsingh, has exhibited leadership qualities that are beyond his years. He has counseled and lent guidance in times of distress and he has engendered pride and enthusiasm within the rank and file of the Union membership. With the turn of the Millennium, economic and technological changes are bound to affect the modus operandi of Trade Unions worldwide. Whatever transitions ATS&GWTU are to undergo, its future seems assured under the leadership of Bro. Rudranath Indarsingh.
The ATS&GWTU certainly has had a rich and colourful history. The very struggle that led to its evolution continues to sustain its development.
As the words of the Union's song suggests;
"We Meet today in freedom's cause,
And Raise our voices high,
We'll join our Hands in Union Strong,
To battle or to die"