Since 1973 Trinidad and Tobago has celebrated June 19 as Labour Day. It commemorates the Butler labour riots – resistance by oilfield workers, spearheaded by Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler, a trade unionist and Trinidadian immigrant originally from Grenada, who fought for better conditions. The Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) was the first official labor union formed in T&T and many followed suit, such as the labor union for sugar workers. However, labor activism was not new to the nation, nor was it new to the region. Throughout the English-speaking Caribbean, there had been unrest and discord since the second decade of the 1900s.
Sparked by the return of soldiers who had fought for Britain in World War I and returned to the same types of discrimination, discontent, racist oppression, and lack of employment opportunities or good wages, there was organizing all over the region. If any of this sounds familiar and you are from the US it’s because Black soldiers returning from World War II had similar experiences. Discontent at unequal treatment sparked emigration (actually repatriation, since these islands were all colonies at the time) to Britain and would eventually lead to the Windrush Generation of the 1950s, and ultimately a massive transfer of Caribbean culture (including carnival and activism) to the global North. More importantly, it ignited labor movements and riots in the Caribbean. And for those who remained, labor union activism was to define work-life in the twentieth century, create fair and equitable conditions, and better wages for workers (see here for more sources). For an energy-rich nation like T&T labor organizing was one of the mechanisms that pushed many Trinbagonians into the middle class. Among other things, we owe unions our gratitude for safe conditions and weekends.
Organizing has always been central to the lives of Black people, indigenous people and other people of color, especially in the Americas where slavery and indentureship – forced and unfair labor, the architecture of capitalist racist systems of oppression defined our lives. Coincidentally June 19, is also Juneteenth in the United States. It is the day when, in 1865 a full two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, enslaved Africans in Galveston, Texas learned that they were free. Forced labor, and oppression have been recurring themes for Black people in many parts of the world, because they all fall under the intricate and long-lasting framework of capitalism and white supremacy. But resistance, rebellion, and cultural retention has also defined us. Our ancestors believed in freedom and a better life, they believed in our future and they prayed for it, hoped for it, fought for it relentlessly. I hope your day was filled with joy and gratitude the ancestors on whose shoulders we stand, pride for our heritage, and hope for a tomorrow worth fighting for.