As my friend Jason and I joined the Labour Day procession in Fyzabad, South Trinidad last week, there was a lone car with a PA system driving slowly alongside those marching. Labour Day was made a Trinidad & Tobago public holiday in 1973 and every year since, trade unions march in Fyzabad to commemorate the 1937 labour riots which gave birth to their existence. This year, 23 unions showed up for the 80th anniverssary of the local trade union movement.
From the PA system soundbites about the working class and the failing economy were spouted. At the end of one loop the mic man said, “Remember, this is a very, very serious occassion.” As soon he cut off, a music truck on the route started playing Machel Montano’s Fast Wine. A very serious occasion indeed.
On the surface, I get that for a five-mile march, music can keep you going. But what happened to the union hymns? I heard all but one while I was there. Union leaders spit some of the right rhetoric, but much of the message of the revolution is lost in the revelry of the union membership. I understand the inclusion of rhythm sections and moko jumbies, which are more symbolic of resistance traditionally, but it was at times hard to tell the difference between the Labour Day march and Las’ Lap on Carnival Tuesday.
What I don’t understand is how a labour movement can have membership that embraces conspicuous consumption, which was evident through the bottles of Absolut and Johnnie Walker being passed around on the lower end. At the executive end, this consumption was evident through the Public Service Association (PSA) and their controversial president Watson Duke.
At the end of the parade, we observed Duke sitting at the head of a table in a PSA enclave away from the stage set up for the day’s speeches. Duke’s faction of the PSA had rented tents, tables, chairs, a sound system and even had their own food truck (with crew outfitted in the PSA’s forest green shirts). Parked near the tents was Duke’s new Mercedes Benz complete with driver and PSA vehicle flag. As former union leader Raffique Shah notes, today’s unions are devoid of leaders with stature. Yet, the scene of Duke and the PSA makes it hard to say who misunderstands the labour movement more: the leader or the members who support misguided leaders like Duke; those whose dues paid for the PSA’s Labour Day amenities and possibly Duke’s luxury car.
Slideshow by: Jason Hunte. For more, follow him on Instagram.