I write to join the company of all who today mourn the passing of our dear friend and comrade, Joe Young, one of the founders, and leader of the Transport and Industrial Workers Union (TIWU) for many years.
As I remember him, Joe was a central figure in the development of the radical trade union movement in the post-independence period in Trinidad and Tobago. He came to public attention in the early 60s in a very noticeable way.
He built a trade union that significantly departed in perspective, and in mission, from the run-of-the-mill conservative labour organisations that littered the landscape in the period between 1937 and 1962. Many of these unions had emerged from the opportunities provided by the unrest and upsurge of the 1930s, and from the destruction of the Butler movement in the 1940s and 1950s.
Opportunities, however, often gave way to opportunism, and many leaders succumbed to imperial and domestic pressures and provided their followers with what can only be described as mediocre and indifferent leadership.
In addition, the national political movement of the 1950s, led by the PNM, deliberately and ostentatiously separated itself from the mass movement of workers and labourers whose struggles and sacrifices had paved the way for sovereignty and independence.
In other words, the march towards independence was peopled with social sectors that were clearly going to benefit from the new political arrangements, and other sectors that were equally clearly going to be left behind. It is this latter group that TIWU identified and sought to represent.
So that while the country was prepping for, and celebrating the arrival of independence, Joe and his associates were looking beyond the arrival of national sovereignty to the problems that would afflict those whose lives and circumstances would remain largely unchanged by the new order.
From its very beginning, therefore, TIWU has been a radical trade union organisation led by a radical trade union leadership. Its mission has always been to provide credible and reliable representation to the unrepresented, and better and honest representation to the badly represented. For that, Joe Young deserves enormous credit: for his consistency, and for his constancy of purpose and direction.
Within a few years after its formation the union became embroiled in the struggles against the introduction of the Industrial Stabilisation Act, the signal piece of legislation that drew the line between the euphoria of independence and the realities of the post-independence period.
In quick succession the Bus Workers strike and the crisis of 1970 followed. In all of these engagements Joe Young and his associates, and TIWU, were deeply involved. Another significant involvement followed with the emergence of the United Labour Front in 1975. TIWU was a participant organisation and Joe Young was one of the four trade union leaders at the helm of the ULF between 1975 and 1977.
As general secretary of the ULF in that period I had a perspective on Joe which has only deepened with the passage of time.
He was a thoughtful, concerned and militant advocate of the interests of the working people, given to careful reflection and deliberation on matters relating to their rights and their expectations, always informed, always seeking and rummaging for the truth, and always ready at a moment's notice to do battle and to win, if not today, then tomorrow, if not tomorrow, then the next day, but ultimately to seek to prevail in the contest between the working classes and those that oppressed them.
It is this perspective that helps to explain his relations with the Industrial Court which he served first as advocate and supplicant and then as judge. In 1965 he opposed the ISA and its initiatives of which the court has turned out to be the most significant and enduring. But once it was established he used it effectively to support and defend the interests of the workers, and to teach the judges how to judge matters relating to industrial relations. In 1969, he made his position very clear:
"I am not against the principle of labour laws", he said, "as I am not against the principle of any law directed to the benefit of people in a society. But when the labour law…has the effect of frustrating workers' aspirations and retarding the development of the trade union movement, I am against it."
Thirty-three years later, in 2002, in political circumstances realised by struggles in which he had been engaged, he accepted the appointment of a judgeship in the Court and continued to serve the working class with distinction until he was laid low by illness and infirmity.
What is his legacy? Above all else, unswerving, dedicated, principled and incorruptible service to the working class. This is not an easy achievement, particularly in the period of neo-colonialism and re-colonisation when so many leaders of the mass movement were, and are, finding sophisticated and inventive ways to condone oppression and exploitation while pretending to oppose them. But as hard as it was Joe Young did it.
For that he will long be remembered.
I close with an assurance of solidarity and friendship with the family and friends, the comrades and associates, of Comrade Joe Young. His life and service will forever be a shining example to others engaged in the struggle for freedom and liberation in Trinidad and Tobago. Walk good, Joe. Be careful.
• James Millette is emeritus
professor, Oberlin College in Ohio