Within recent years, annual Labour Day celebrations trigger accusations that the trade unions that mark the occasion with marches and speeches at Fyzabad pay homage only to Tubal Uriah Butler, never Adrian Cola Rienzi.
Such sentiments imply that Rienzi, whose original name was Krishna Deonarine, is ignored by labour because of his race. They suggest that his contribution to trade unions in the country—through registration and leadership of both the oil workers’ OWTU and the sugar workers’ ATSEFWTU in 1937—was as critical to the recognition and development of labour as Butler’s charismatic appeal to the masses.
As a former unionist who made the annual pilgrimage to Fyzabad between 1973 and when the cane farmers’ union I led folded in 2007, I recognise Butler as the Father of Labour.
I took this position after studying reports on the tumultuous events of 1937, and listening to accounts of workers who were actually on location in or around Bhola’s yard where Butler was holding a meeting when the riot exploded.
Butler, who had by then established himself as the leader of the oilfields’ workers as well as the wider working class, was addressing a meeting of striking workers from Bhola’s verandah.
The police arrived, and corporal Charlie King tried to arrest Butler. Some workers pounced on King. In fleeing, he jumped from a window, broke a leg, and as he attempted to crawl to safety, someone threw a gas lantern on him and he was burnt to death.
In the melee that followed, a police inspector was shot dead and the armed contingent retreated. Butler was spirited from Fyzabad even as the strikes and violence spread to other oilfields, the sugar plantations and estates in central and south Trinidad.
That Butler evaded the police and soldiers—Britain had dispatched two battleships and a large contingent of troops to the island—for months spoke volumes of the support he enjoyed among the masses across the country.
He would eventually be arrested when he attempted to appear before a tribunal and was charged, tried and jailed. It was during this period that Rienzi, a San Fernando-based lawyer/activist who pursued civil rights issues on behalf of Indians and citizens in general, came to the fore.
He had formed an alliance with Butler earlier, but never engaged in platform or street politics. After Butler’s arrest, he helped raise funds for the Chief’s defence, and he was invited by a few workers who had formed—but not registered—the OWTU, to become president of the union.
Rienzi would also register and lead the sugar workers’ union.
But, with workers across the country using the aftermath of the uprising to demand better wages and benefits, Rienzi—now partnered by John Rojas in the OWTU—faltered by accepting lower than expected offers from the oil companies.
The workers rejected them and pressed for more, which a tribunal would award them in 1938, increases up from two cents an hour to four cents.
Thereafter, Rienzi fell into the mould of the typical middle class leadership. Like Cipriani before him, and many others afterwards, they were willing to compromise with the employers and colonial authorities, suppressing militancy among their members.
Rienzi would also commit a cardinal sin by appointing Butler, when he emerged from prison in 1939, as the OWTU’s chief organiser. Here again, Rienzi may have collaborated with the oil companies and the Governor in seeking to neutralise Butler.
But Butler, who was very much a one-man road-show, ignored Rienzi and Rojas and proceeded to rally the workers the way he had done in 1936-1937. This time, though, war rescued the authorities: Butler was again arrested and detained as a “security risk” for the duration of World War II.
By the time Butler was released in 1945, Rienzi had moved into politics, serving as a councillor and Mayor in San Fernando, a member of the Legislative Council—before adult franchise—and eventually as Crown Counsel, appointed by the Governor.
He continued to fight for civil rights, especially for Indians, but he was seen as having compromised with the colonial masters.
Although Butler would never lead the OWTU or any other union, he remained a force to reckon with up to 1956 when the advent of Dr Eric Williams and the PNM wiped him off the political map.
I should note that for all his radicalism, Butler was a colonial at heart. He boasted of his “Britishness” and named his party—the British Empire Citizens—accordingly.
To his credit, he forged Indo-Afro unity throughout his active life. Besides opening a path for Rienzi, he brought to the fore politicians such as Stephen Maharaj, the Sinanan brothers Mitra and Ashford, and Pope McLean.
Editor’s Note: Raffique Shah recommends: Bukka Rennie’s The History of the Working Class in T&T 1919-1956 for anyone interested in learning more about the history of the Trinidad and Tobago labour movement.