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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Yet another Labour Day celebration has gone by and the OWTU continues to ignore the role of its founding president general, Adrian Cola Rienzi, in its formal proceedings to mark the occasion. What is it about Rienzi that the current leadership of the OWTU will not acknowledge on the same plain with Tubal Uriah Butler?

Rienzi, whose name at birth was Krishna Deonarine, was the intelligentsia behind the labour movement of the 1930s, whereas Butler was the militant. Together they made a formidable team who fought for the rights of workers at a critical stage in our nation’s history.

Indeed, it was Rienzi who epitomised the unity between oil and sugar insofar as he was the founder and first president general, not only of the OWTU, but also the All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factories Workers Trade Union. He also became the president of the Trade Union Council.

The trade union movement must get its history right if it is to make any credible advances in its struggle for better terms and conditions for its followers. By ignoring the equally valuable work of Rienzi alongside Butler they are short-changing the current generation of workers and rewriting the history of labour in most undignified manner.

The public relations officer of JTUM called on TTUTA to ensure that labour history is taught in schools. In doing so, he said:

“How many schools do anything to teach about our labour history and more so, doing anything about teaching about Tubal Uriah Butler. How many schools?” (Guardian, June 20, 2016, p A3).

Why is Cabrera forgetting to mention Rienzi who is just as important to the labour struggles of yesteryear for school students to learn about?

In many respects, labour will continue to suffer a fate of perpetual struggle with smaller divided numbers because of either their deliberate or ignorant erasure of the role of Adrian Cola Rienzi alongside Butler in the annals of labour history in this country.

It was refreshing to note the forthright statements by President Anthony Carmona who made Rienzi the centrepiece of his recent public comments to commemorate Labour Day.

Many in the OWTU will not even know that the union newspaper, The Vanguard, was in fact the creation of the intellectual mind of Rienzi. If TTUTA is being called upon to ensure that school children are taught about the virtues of Butler in the labour history of this country, then they should ensure that the one-sided recommendations from the JTUM platform are rectified to include Rienzi in that curriculum.

They should also ensure that the history of Rienzi and Butler is properly recorded to show that they were very good friends and that when Butler was hiding from the colonial authorities, it was Rienzi who was fronting for him and that Rienzi knew where he was hiding and protected him in 1937.

It was Rienzi who organised the workers during this period and a meeting took place on July 27, 1937, which led to the creation of the OWTU and Rienzi was chosen by the workers to become their first President-General.

Butler surrendered to the colonial authorities in September 1937 and he was charged with sedition and inciting a riot. It was Rienzi, the barrister, who defended Butler in the courts. Butler was freed of sedition, but was sentenced to two years hard labour for inciting a riot.

In 1938 Rienzi contested a seat on the Legislative Council and was elected. One of his early proposals as a member of the council was to ask the then governor, Sir Hubert Young, for June 19 to be made a public holiday. It did not happen until 1973 when Eric Williams declared it a public holiday.

For the information of all of those who trek every year to Charlie King Junction in Fyzabad to celebrate Labour Day, they need to be told that it was Rienzi who made the first request for such a holiday in the Legislative Council back on June 16, 1939. All of this must be part of the history that has to be taught to schoolchildren should TTUTA embark on a move to ensure that labour history is included in the curriculum of the nation’s schools.

The 1937-39 period is a most important part of the labour history of T&T because of the developments that emerged out of that period, namely the birth of the OWTU and the All-Trinidad Sugar union.

If the labour movement of today is to be true to itself, it will raise the profile of one Adrian Cola Rienzi. This is no sideshow, but in fact it is the real deal. As long as the labour leaders of today continue to persist with a flawed view of their own history they will be doomed to suffer the ignominy of disunity. As it stands now, the labour movement is divided and they must address that. Ask NATUC who had difficulty accessing the Fyzabad event, while the All-Trinidad sugar union had their own event in Couva.

Both Rienzi and Butler must be turning in their graves.


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