The Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU), widely recognized as the strongest and most militant trade union in Trinidad and Tobago and the Anglophone Caribbean, was born out of the General Strike which started on June 19th, 1937 in the oilfields of south Trinidad. This was the most powerful of the mass actions that were taking place across the Caribbean, as the working class throughout the region were taking a stand and making their voices heard as they struggled against the poor working conditions which they were experiencing. At the same time the vast majority of workers faced social conditions such as very poor housing, inadequate health care, the lack of educational opportunities and racial discrimination, amongst other ills.
From the mid-1930’s workers began to express their discontent through increasingly militant actions. Unemployment was high and wages which were low were reduced even as the employer class sought to ensure that they lost little in the face of the global economic crisis precipitated by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great depression which followed. In addition to the many issues related to the poor working and social conditions which prevailed, these struggles also had a very important political dimension. The workers were also struggling against colonialism as evidenced by their call for ‘Home Rule’. They knew that achieving independence would be a means to improving the conditions that they were then facing.
In this period of heightened mobilization against these injustices a leader emerged – Tubal Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler. Under his leadership the strike began on June 19, 1937 – the day we commemorate today as Labour Day. The Strike soon spread throughout Trinidad and involved all major sectors of workers (dockworkers, sugar workers, cocoa estate workers, railway workers and store workers) in the island. The uprising lasted until July 2, and the colonial authorities required the intervention of British troops from two battleships the Exeter and the Ajax to quell the protests. During this strike, 14 lives were lost, including that of policeman, Charlie King, hundreds were injured and many persons were arrested.
It was out of these dynamic and historic circumstances that the OWTU was born. The first official meeting of the Union was held on July 15, 1937 at Mr. Williams quarters, Coon Town, Forest Reserve, Fyzabad. The OWTU was formally established just days later on July 25, 1937 at its Founding Conference, held at “Saltfish Hall”, Mucurapo Street in San Fernando. The Union was Registered on September 15, 1937.
With Butler having to go into hiding after June 19th due to an warrant for his arrest on sedition and treason charges, another leader emerged – Adrian Cola Rienzi - who became the Union’s first President General. Rienzi also became the first President of the All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Workers’ Trade Union, when that Union was formed. The OWTU’s first Central Office was established at 16, Coffee Street in San Fernando. The Blue Shirt uniform for which the OWTU is well known has been worn since the 1930’s.
Since those days, over seventy years ago, the OWTU has been able to establish itself as a strong, militant, democratic institution committed to defending the interests of our members, the wider working class and the nation. This Union considers its role in fulfilling these objectives as not only limited to the shop floor or the negotiating table, but has proven time and time again that it will intervene into the arena of national affairs, if this is necessary to protect and defend workers’ rights and the national interest.