If someone, some entity, has told the government, “We want to do business with Petrotrin, but you must first defang OWTU,” and the government is obeying this directive, this would not only be deeply regrettable, but pathetic and unpatriotic. Here are seven reasons why the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago needs institutions like the OWTU.
Tubal Uriah Buzz Butler. Butler did not attend Oxford University. Not many persons might understand what life in the colonial inter-war years (1918-1939) years was like. The life of the ordinary citizen was mean, crippling and shabby. It was difficult to find employment. My grandfather, Johnson Dhanukdharrisingh, who was secretary to the Federated Workers Trade Union and a Butlerite, was harangued by destitute workers, wanting a little bit of pitch oil, saltfish, flour to keep their families in subsistence mode. Butler lit a fire across the oil belt, setting standards for dignified pay, dignified labour, a dignified body politic. This dignity was not allayed in the work of presidents general Adrian Cola Rienzi (1937-1943), and John FF Rojas (1943-1962).
George Weekes. Weekes, in the midst of Black Power, worked with both oil and sugar unions to challenge the faltering independence project. It was they who took up the reins of resistance. It was they who challenged draconian laws. It was they who challenged the police and soldiers. It was they who the blows. They never sat idly by in cushy offices, validating the status quo and elites. They spoke out. They make noise. They were not sucked into the comforting succour of partisan race-based politics. On the wall of its conference room in Paramount Building, San Fernando, the OWTU carries its motto. It is a pledge not just to support the working classes, but to “give voice to the voiceless through organizing, educating and political action.” It is a national, patriotic mandate.
Living Its Motto. Thus, when the Highway Reroute Movement was attacked by soldiers, police, the government ministers, by their thugs and political hacks, on the ground and on public platforms, the OWTU’s general secretary and president general stood with us. They didn’t carry salt-prunes in their mouths and watch us sourly. In Debe, in Philipine, in St Clair Port of Spain, they came, they and the Blue Army, giving unmitigated support. Never in the history of our relations with the OWTU did they, their officers, their staff, their workers show us any resentment, deceit, temper, bad will, impatience. They have been kind, professional, gracious to the utmost towards a group, composed and led mainly by women in a rural district unaccustomed to the vagaries of public struggles.
Non-Partisan Resistance. There are many estates and vested interests in the Republic who want nothing more than the OWTU’s and the president general’s throat. They are quick to unquestioningly accept state propaganda. The OWTU represents a stone in their craw. But when push comes to shove, while they bathe in Maracas, cock up their feet on the couch to see Man U, sip smoothies at Rituals, lime down by the river, curry duck fetes and All Fours, it is the OWTU and the unions who challenge bad government, bad public policy, bad decisions. It represents a force of genuine non-partisan resistance few are able or willing to commit to. It is an equal-opportunity force of resistance. Attempting to cut its throat, or vying to have its workers cut and run to the party base, is draconian, mean, cowardly, undemocratic and dishonourable.
A Logical Policy. The OWTU’s position on the Petrotrin refinery is logical and viable. The population is finding it hard to comprehend that the end of the Petrotrin refinery means the end of Petrotrin itself. Petrotrin cannot survive for long on purely crude outputs. The quality, volume and market simply is not there; there is too much oil and gas elsewhere; now also being topped off in some places, strategically, by protonic and photonic energy, the green economy. It is at the refinery end, the sale of value added fuels, that the substantial profits are harnessed. The end of Petrotrin means a weakened OWTU and Labour Movement. This is not in the best interest of Trinidad and Tobago or Caribbean democracy.
Protecting the Republic. The OWTU agrees to deep and meaningful restructuring. It has agreed to a 15% wage and salary contribution. It has presented a fair and workable plan to make mining and refinery businesses profitable. It has indicated an intention to vie for an optimum workforce. It is being wooed by a number of business-strategic entities offering support. The refinery must be used to build an internal energy economy, protecting us from the vagaries of global instability. And from the extreme fallout, the socio-economic mess, inflation and dependence, attendant on full closure. It does not matter where the financial and technical expertise come from. What matters is ownership: that the bulk of company profits, bulk forex, are not exported; but remain working here in the Republic. In no form or fashion must the citizens of the Republic accept the full closure of the Petrotrin refinery.
Dependence vs Independence. Butler did not attend Oxford University. He was a Grenadian-Trinidadian of a devout, independent and fiery spirit. Confronted with a choice between a government on someone else’s lead, or by a union willing to lead and reform as Petrotrin reforms, we must, as a people, have the good sense to choose the latter.