Here in Trinidad and Tobago, however, we celebrate the birth of our country’s labour movement on this date, June 19. On this day, seven decades ago, a series of events occurred which laid the foundation for the trade unions which now defend the rights of workers in this country.
The man at the centre of it all was Tubal Uriah Butler, a fierce defender of workers’ rights who earned his place in TT’s history during the turbulent days of June 1937. The father of this country’s trade union movement was born in Grenada. As a young man he enlisted for the front during World War I. After the war was over, he returned to Grenada for a while, then in January, 1921 he moved to Trinidad.
Uriah Butler became a strong supporter of the pro-worker efforts then being made by the former captain of the British West India Regiment, Arthur Andrew Cipriani and joined the La Brea branch of Captain Cipriani’s Trinidad Labour Party. But he became increasingly dissatisfied with what he regarded as Cipriani’s “gentle” approach, and living as he did in the oilbelt at Fyzabad, he began serious agitation for the rights of oil workers.
Butler’s confrontation with oil employers grew until in 1935 he led a hunger march at Apex oilfields, Fyzabad, aimed at getting better conditions for the oilfield workers. Now, having frequent disagreements with Captain Cipriani, whom he accused of “somersaulting and back pedalling,” he resigned from the Trinidad Labour Party. That was in July 1936, and in that same month he formed the British Empire Workers’ and Citizens’ Home Rule Party.
In 1937 the oil industry in Trinidad and Tobago was in its infancy. Oil had been commercially produced since 1908 and during the first World War oil from TT was integral to the British war effort. During that turbulent period, standing ide by side with Butler was a young lawyer named Adrian Cola Rienzi, formerly known as Krishna Deonarine from Palmyra in San Fernando. From an early age, Rienzi showed a lively interest in the welfare of the working class. At that time, there were poverty and squalour on all sides except employers, especially oilfield employers, who seemed to be striking it rich, but appeared to have nothing but contempt for the labouring class.
Rienzi supported Cipriani in forming the Trinidad Citizens’ League, an organisation which was immediately branded by the authorities as Communist. In 1936 Rienzi, tired of what was called Cipriani’s “back-pedalling”, left Cipriani, and he saw his friend Butler do the same. When Butler’s agitation in the oil belt in June 1937 resulted in oilfield riots and a police bid to apprehend Uriah Butler, Rienzi at once closed ranks with Butler.
Butler’s agitation became more and more militant, and in May 1937, because of the alleged contents of a speech he had made to workers at Fyzabad, he was arrested and charged with inciting to riot and with sedition. He was summoned for June 14 but failed to appear, and a few days later, June 19, 1937, police tried to arrest him while he was making a speech to workers at Fyzabad, his followers resisted his arrest, and bloody riots broke out.
A police inspector was fatally shot, and a corporal was burned to death. What followed those riots known as the Butler Riots, or Oilfeild Riots, was widespread social unrest, especially in the oil areas. Butler, who was sought frantically by the police, went into hiding after the turmoil but gave himself up on September 9, 1937. His trial lasted from November 25 to December 16 of that year. He was freed of the charge of sedition but was jailed for two years with hard labour on the charge of inciting to riot.
Butler served his sentence, but when World War II broke out in September 1939, he was re-arrested and detained as a security risk under the Defence Regulations. He spent six years in detention on Caledonia Island, not being released until the war was over in 1945. Still enjoying extraordinary popular support and public sympathy at the time of his release, Butler went into active politics.
Toward the end of 1946, there was a flare-up of industrial unrest in the country, and this unrest was attributed to Butler. The unrest reached crisis proportions when on January 22, 1947, followers of Butler who had crowded into Port-of-Spain, stormed the Red House. Port-of-Spain dock workers as well as public service worker were on strike, while in the oilfields the situation was critical, with rioting on the streets of Fyzabad and Point Fortin. The Carnival, which was scheduled to take place on February 17 and 18, barely escaped being banned. Butler continued his industrial agitation and did not turn away from the political fray.
He formed the Butler party and at the general elections of 1950, he fought in the oil belt and duly won the seat to represent St Patrick West in the Legislative Council. His party won six seats, against two each by the other three parties, and there were six Independents. He retained his seat at the following general elections in 1956 but suffered a crushing electoral defeat in the general elections of 1961, fighting for the seat of La Brea. By that time the aura he gained by his agitation for the workers in 1937 had worn off.
However, when TT gained independence in 1962, Butler’s contribution as a labour leader, and his reputation as a fighter for the masses took on special significance. He was regarded as a hero of the people, and in fact, he was seen as the man who struck the first damaging blow against colonialism, thus giving courage to the fighters for independence.
In recognition of this, Butler was in 1970 decorated with the country’s highest award, then known as the Trinity Cross. But the greatest tribute of all came in 1973, when the anniversary of the oilfield riots, June 19, was declared an annual national holiday and celebrated as Labour Day. Butler died on February 20, 1977. The former Princess Margaret Highway was renamed in his honour.