In an increasingly globalised world – of dispersed supply and production chains overseen by multinational corporations – what role can trade unions play in the struggle against exploitation? How might a reckoning with workers’ positions within these supply and production chains allow for a more effective leveraging of their power? The story of the Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU) in Trinidad and Tobago – and their contributions to the Grenada Revolution in 1979 – is an example of how a politics of anti-imperial solidarity can strengthen trade unions, weaken repressive regimes, and shape an emancipatory politics for all.
In July 1978, the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU), one of the oldest and largest trade unions in Trinidad and Tobago, held a special conference to discuss and clarify the union’s ‘international policy’. Founded in 1937, the OWTU had emerged from a Pan-West Indian labour rebellion in the 1930s, when the West Indian population mobilised against British colonialism, racial exploitation and impoverishment, while pushing for democratic self-governance. Since its first internal elections, coinciding with Trinidad and Tobago’s national independence in 1962, the union had taken an international stance based in ideas of Third Worldist socialism and Black internationalism. The latter meant the union subscribed to a politics of transnational solidarity amongst Black political struggles, rooted in the shared antagonisms of anti-Black racism and oppression unleashed by European colonialism and chattel slavery. The position of Trinidad and Tobago within the global oil economy was stressed as a key asset in the union’s ability to make meaningful this stance.
Yet, this internationalist position in theory was often tested in practice. The reason for the 1978 conference was the failure of some OWTU workers to uphold an oil embargo against the neighbouring West Indian state of Antigua, which was being used as a trans-shipment point for arms bound for the South African apartheid regime. The workers that had observed the embargo were suspended by their employer, while those who hadn’t were able to maintain their wages and jobs. At the conference, the OWTU leadership stressed the need for a consistent policy of international solidarity – not just out of a commitment to human rights in South Africa, but because the position of Trinidad and Tobago’s oil workers, and the Caribbean workers’ movement more broadly, would be strengthened by such activity.
This moment in West Indian labour history foregrounds several questions about trade union activism and international solidarity. As was posed at the conference, should trade unionists enter international politics and, if so, why and how? Indeed, well before the conference in 1978, there had been serious debates within the union on this question. Key leadership figures had warned that by aligning with broader social movements, in the Caribbean and beyond, the union was losing its way and failing to adequately represent its members. However, for those who promoted a policy of international solidarity there was the firmly held view that workers in countries exploited by imperialism and employed in global industries, such as oil, could play a role in contesting the transnational manifestations of these connected systems.
This belief in the importance of international solidarity was put into practice when the OWTU supported a revolution happening in nearby Grenada. During the 1970s, under the authoritarian rule of the strongman leader and first Prime Minister of the island Eric Gairy, Grenada was an oft-overlooked link in an international network of reactionary regimes backed by the US empire. The mass democratic opposition that emerged against Gairy’s regime was led by the New Jewel Movement (NJM). The NJM came from a base of disaffected youth and was originally influenced by Black Power politics and a mass-oriented socialism. Through the 1970s, the group pivoted to a more overt Marxist-Leninism and an organisational model of democratic centralism. They engaged in a politics of mass protest, strikes and electoral opposition – tactics which ultimately culminated in a successful armed revolution in 1979 and the establishment of the People’s Revolutionary Government of Grenada led by Maurice Bishop.
From its outset, the OWTU stood behind this movement. They did so by leveraging their crucial position in transnational networks of maritime trade and oil distribution: in 1973, they instigated an oil embargo against Grenada. This embargo coincided with mass protests in opposition to the Gairy regime. As growing calls for Gairy to resign were ignored, the NJM initiated a general strike in early 1974. With the embargo and a general strike in place, fuel supplies on the island effectively ran dry by early 1974. Maurice Bishop thanked the OWTU for their role in materially weakening the authoritarian Gairy regime during this strike, in what he described as a “historic contribution” to the struggle against tyranny. For the OWTU, supporting the revolution – and removing an anti-labour figure such as Gairy from power in Grenada – meant workers’ rights in Trinidad and Tobago could be better safeguarded.
As well as utilising its position in the global oil economy to enact an embargo, the OWTU used its headquarters as a space for political education on international issues. Located in San Fernando, a city in the south of Trinidad on the oil belt, the headquarters hosted seminars and ‘teach-ins’, which were regularly opened to the public. In 1975, NJM-leader Maurice Bishop gave a talk at the OWTU headquarters titled ‘Fascism – A Caribbean reality?’ In it, he addressed what he saw as increasingly fascist tendencies in the Caribbean in states like Grenada, Dominica and Haiti. He positioned these states within a broader collection of neo-fascist regimes including “Spain, South Africa, Portugal before the 1974 coup [and]…Chile.”
This talk, and others hosted at the headquarters, were published for educational purposes by the union. The OWTU used its official organ, The Vanguard, to further raise consciousness about the political regimes in the Caribbean, backed by imperialism, that constrained workers’ rights. The publication was circulated widely in Trinidad and Tobago, across the Caribbean, and reached the UK, carried by figures politically aligned to its aims.
After the eventual removal of Gairy and the establishment of the People’s Revolutionary Government of Grenada in 1979, Maurice Bishop was able to take his warning against a rising tide of neo-fascism to the world stage. When he addressed the 34th General Assembly of the UN as Grenada’s new leader, he emphasised that imperialist powers in the West, in alliance with multinational corporations, were backing reactionary regimes in the Global South in order to maintain relations of dependence and the exploitation of Black workers. His criticism singled out Western support for the South African apartheid regime; a position shared by the OWTU and borne out of both racial solidarity and antagonisms with the oil firms operating there. The ability of Bishop and post-revolutionary Grenada to articulate this politics on a global platform can at least be partially linked to the role of the OWTU in providing an incubating space for the development of this analysis and a network for garnering wider support.
The OWTU maintained their links of solidarity with the NJM in government. Delegates from both countries would travel between their islands, to attend political events, carrying news of developments of the revolution and opposing the counter-revolutionary propaganda and destabilisation campaign being waged primarily by the US. In a sign of the increasingly close relationship between the new Grenadian government and the trade union, a Grenadian delegation was due to deliver the feature address at the OWTU’s 44th annual conference. But this arrangement was never fulfilled. On 19 October 1983, key figures in the Grenadian government, including Bishop, were murdered by factional elements leading a ‘coup’ within the revolutionary regime. This led to a subsequent military crackdown by the coup leaders, and ultimately set the course for the US invasion of Grenada later that month.
What do the OWTU’s relations with Grenada in this tumultuous period say about the reasons for trade unionists to engage in international solidarity? For the OWTU leadership, the message was simple; the struggle for one worker represented the struggle of all workers. However, the fact that the 1978 emergency special conference had to be organised by the union suggests this message wasn’t so simply understood or backed by all. The OWTU had to consistently make efforts to highlight the importance of international solidarity to their membership.
They did this by stressing how an anti-imperialist stance globally and the removal of local reactionary regimes in the Caribbean would strengthen workers’ domestic position in Trinidad and Tobago vis a vis foreign multinationals and Western-backed governments. Further still, a politics of Black internationalism and racial solidarity was summoned in the call for solidarity with struggles within and beyond the Caribbean. These political ideas were put into practice through direct action such as oil embargos and in creating spaces and networks of political education. The oil workers of Trinidad and Tobago leveraged their strategic position in global supply and trade networks, to advance the democratic, pro-worker and anti-imperialist ideals necessary to combat exploitation in a globalised world.