Friday, February 23, 2018

A fearless fighter for labour

Elbert Redvers Blades (1902 to 2012)


AN ADVENTUROUS LIFE: Elbert Blades died at 110 years old on Friday.

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YOUNGER DAYS: A picture of Elbert Blades on the Memorial board at the OWTU headquarters.

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ON APRIL 7, 1902, in Belmont, Elbert Redvers Blades was born.

Some 110 years later, last Friday, he died.

His life's work and achievements will be remembered.

Blades was a founding member of the Oilfields Workers' Trade Union (OWTU) and the union's first general secretary.

The OWTU was formed in 1937 almost a month after Tubal Uriah "Buzz" Butler, in June 1937, led the historic strike and uprising that did not end until July 2.

He also played a key role in the formation of the All Trinidad Sugar and Factory Workers' Trade Union (ATSGWTU).

Blades, who  lived at Cumuto Road, Wallerfield, up until the time of his death, received the OWTU's highest honour—the Labour Star, the Trinidad and Tobago Hummingbird Silver medal in 1998 and the Republic Day Award in 2007, as well as other awards.

He was also a part of the central executive of the People's National Movement party under the leadership of the country's first prime minister, Dr Eric Williams.

Blades led an adventurous life, placing himself in many risky situations.

He lived through World Wars and the Labour Riots, the latter of which he played very influential roles.

Samuel, his first son and second child, who is in his sixties, said his father was a fearless man who was able to create peace in parts of Trinidad seeing unrest.

Most of the information about Blades came from Samuel.

Two years before World War II ended, Blades wed Muriel Taylor and they remained married for almost 60 years until she died at age 82 in 2003.

The couple had six children, three sons and three daughters, all of whom are alive today.

Samuel said his grandmother, Sarah Liscot Nesbit Bertie, came from St Kitts and his grandfather, Charles Adonis Blades, was born in Barbados.

Samuel said he was not sure how his grandparents met or how and why they came to Trinidad.

Blades's mother was the great-granddaughter of a Fulani princess of the Fulani tribe called Nureelee Esleenee, who lived in Western Sudan, Africa.

Blades, who wrote the primary school exit examination when it was called college exhibition, placed ninth in the island.

But at that time the government only paid for the top six pupils who passed the exam to attend secondary school and Blades was not able to afford a higher education.

But he did teach apprentices at the oilfields who were preparing for the City and Guilds examinations.

Samuel said he was told that, throughout the Caribbean, workers were underpaid, worked under terrible conditions and were discriminated against by the caucasians.

Society was also affected greatly by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.

So citizens protested.

The colonial authorities needed the help of British troops to bring stability back to the country after the 1937 strike. Fourteen lives were lost, including policeman Charlie King, who was burnt to death at the very junction in Fyzabad named after him.

Samuel said his father got involved with the protest led by Butler because he and  Butler knew each other.

They were part of the Trinidad Labour Party that was formed by Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani before Butler created his own party—the British Empire Workers and Citizen Home Rule Party. Blades remained with Cipriani's party.

After Butler went into hiding from the police, Blades along with other workers felt it was their responsibility to continue the strike and fight for better wages and lives, Samuel said.

Butler died in 1977, seven years after being awarded the nation's highest award, then called the Trinity Cross.

Blades told his life-changing experiences to his children and Samuel retold some of these to the Express. Samuel said the strike that changed the nation's history began "accidentally."

His father worked for almost 12 cents an hour—the highest a mechanic could have been paid at that time as a motor mechanic at what was Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd—an oil company in Fyzabad. He would drive most of the times because " he almost always had a car no matter what kind", Samuel said.

Back then, Blades lived at Belmont Circular Road, opposite what is now the Belmont Secondary School.

During that time many would "trust goods" from the popular Chinese shops and then pay back at a later date, Samuel said.

He said, "The strike came off by accident on the 18th when the persons who worked at Forest Reserve taking up the 11 'o' clock shift were going to work for the night shift. They had to pass through what was called Apex, another oilfield to get to the Forest Reserve in Fyzabad. While passing through, there was an electricity problem and the derricks (devices used for drilling and piping) were not lighting. The workers thought the strike began because there were talks about it for a while and they refused to work. So they embarked on what was called a sitting strike, they would show up for work and not do anything."

Samuel said, "After the strike was over, the governor came to the oilfields to hear what the company had to say and what the workers had to say and if everything was okay. He went to see the managers first of the field and he was assured by them that everything was all right that the fields were quiet and the conditions good. After which he asked to see the workers. The workers nominated my father to speak and they got a different story and that man, Mr Murchison Fletcher, was from the Labour Party in England. When he heard the state of the workers and all the laws that they had, he suggested that they can't be helped unless they form a union. The idea of forming a union actually came from the governor. He said make it strong."

Sir Arthur George Murchison Fletcher was governor of the country from 1936 to 1938."

Samuel said, "My father came out from the meeting and reported to waiting workers what had transpired inside. My father, who was also a blacksmith, said we got to beat the iron while it's hot we have to form the union now. He said where under that tree? And a fellow, I can't remember his name, said no we can't do that let's go and form the union in my house and that was the first meeting."

According to information taken from the OWTU's website, the first meeting was held  at Mr Williams's quarters, Coon Town, Forest Reserve, Fyzabad.

Information taken from the minutes of that meeting stated the meeting was impromptu, and started at 8.30 sharp.

However, because of the small room, "the

majority had to remain in the cold outside" and the names of all present were taken, while the meeting ended at 10.30 p.m.

Back then, the general secretary represented the Garage and Transport Departments. 

After several union meetings, Blades was also the one who nominated Adrian Cola Rienzi to be OWTU's first president general.

The OWTU was formally established later on July 25, 1937 at its Founding Conference, held at "Saltfish Hall", Mucurapo Street in San Fernando. The symbolic blue shirts were worn ever since. This year, the union will celebrate 75 years of existence.

One of the "adventures" Samuel shared with the Express was his father's "bicycle cade" escapade.

He said, "He (Blades) organised a bicycle cade to go from Fyzabad to Port of Spain. During the strike, they would go on bicycles from oilfield to oilfield encouraging workers not to work. When they reached what was called Jumbie Bridge in Barataria the police were waiting for them. And of course he had to flee for his life. He was able to run into a yard and a woman wanted to sell him out because she heard Charlie King got burned so they only have bad people in Fyzabad. But he really pleaded for his life and they were able to give him a change of clothing and the description the police had of the leader was lost because he changed his clothes. He went right through the police some time after and he was able to put his bicycle on the train and went straight down to San Fernando. So they didn't make it to Port of Spain that day."

Blades was sort of an intermediator between the police and the workers and he was able to convince the police to withdraw from certain areas" because either pres-