XV) The 1930s and the rise of militant labor action
Economic conditions deteriorated with the onset of the world-wide depression. High unemployment, underemployment, and low wages contributed to the growing disillusionment. Workers and aspiring union leaders staged mass demonstrations and hunger marches. In 1933 urban workers demonstrated in Port of Spain while drought and worsening conditions in the sugar areas led to massive layoffs (Brereton 1981:171).
In July 1934 Couva, Chaguanas, Tunapuna, and San Fernando were rocked by mass demonstrations of near-starving sugar workers who marched from Caroni, the center of the sugar area, to Port of Spain. 15,000 workers throughout the sugar belt ultimately became involved. Attacks on estate managers and the police, the destruction of company property, looting, and other acts of violence indicate the desperation of men close to starvation. No organization claimed to direct the workers nor were there any identifiable leaders. The uprisings were quelled without loss of life but many were arrested and fined (Brereton 1981:171).
As usual the colonial government appointed a Commission of Enquiry which failed to make any recommendations for improving the living or working conditions of sugar workers. The governor criticized the sugar companies for their callous disregard of their workers' pitiful plights and berated them for overtasking and retrenchment (Brereton 1981:171). These riots marked the arrival of East Indian workers onto the stage of industrial agitation and political mobilization.
In March 1935 Apex Oilfield workers struck complaining of long hours, low wages, unfair deductions, and poor conditions. The workers downed tools and set off on a hunger march to Port of Spain under the leadership of T.U. Butler and John Rojas, executive members of the TLP in Fyzabad. Butler challenged the Trinidad Labour Party and their leader Captain Cipriani for their lack of support and emerged as the leader of the oil-workers (Brereton 1981:172).
The nationwide labor riots of 1937 were the culmination of long simmering dissatisfaction with the prevailing industrial arrangements and living conditions. A new period of labor/capital relations began with the formation of modern industrial trade unions in the aftermath of the uprisings.