BASDEO PANDAY in the sugar belt of the 1970s was poetry in motion. He reflected labour militancy, embellished with street theatre, substance and style, bravado and battle.
Panday merged labour combativeness with political ambition and a delivery manner that revealed his flair for the performing arts, which he had honed during his years of study in Britain.
He had torpedoed Rampartap Singh as head of the sugar workers’ union and brewed a headstrong struggle against the authorities over woeful working conditions.
When it was over, Panday had created labour and political history, and had become one of Trinidad and Tobago’s most compelling post-Independence figures.
He formed an accord with OWTU (Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union) strongman George Weekes, in the process making a mockery of Dr Eric Williams’ boast of keeping oil and sugar workers apart, a coded term for divide-and-rule politics.
He got a 100 per cent increase in wages for sugar workers (although some had been taking home a few cents for their daily grind), had child labour abolished, and saw the construction of low-cost houses for employees. Many current professionals are the offspring of the relentless Panday-led campaign against the status quo.
The 1975 aborted march for “peace, bread and justice”—Williams had the police brutalise protesters, including women —followed a rally of 25,000 at Skinner Park, San Fernando, arguably the largest-ever labour gathering in T&T’s history.
“We have to turn the labour struggle into a political struggle,” Panday told Labour Day 1975 at Fyzabad, entrancing the audience with his resolve and elegant manner.
T&T had known Panday since the mid-1960s.
He had refused to join the “Indian party” Democratic Labour Party (DLP) and opted for the Workers’ and Farmers’ Party (WFP) , considered by some as a Marxist group, with such members as the renowned CLR James.
Panday lost his deposit in the 1966 polls and WFP was wiped out.
He later aligned with OWTU as a legal adviser, and converted the fertile sugar belt into his stomping ground. He routinely called wildcat strikes, go-slows and other labour protests in his dogged representation of those historically oppressed workers.
After one protracted campaign, Errol Mahabir, a senior government minister, called Panday to say, “Boy, the old man say you win. Call Caroni (the sugar company) tomorrow and they will see you.”
United Labour Front (ULF), the political vehicle of Panday, Weekes, Raffique Shah, Joe Young, Clive Nunez and other labour warriors of the era, duly picked up a few seats in the 1976 general election. Panday, the labour folk hero, had become Williams’ parliamentary nemesis and would be sworn in as prime minister a decade and a half after the passing of the country’s first leader.
His stewardship in national office merits separate analyses (maybe I would write a piece sometime), and his tenure in public affairs must include scrutiny of his various high-stake political break-ups. But nothing must subtract from his legacy as a strident working-class leader, a man of rare conviction, with a commitment to ethnic unity and to a more equitable spread of national resources.
He railed against the masses remaining “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. But over the years, the wealth gap has only widened.
Panday was a secure leader, powerful advocate, great orator and an indomitable spirit. And, of course, his repartee and seductive charm.
“Panday!” a man shouted at a political meeting.
“My brother,” he retorted.
“Yuh ole dawg,” the heckler slammed.
“Why yuh t’ink I call yuh mih brother?” Panday teased.
He was an unlikely Caribbean leader, emerging from a traditionally docile community to shake up the system, challenge a maximum leader and stay the course. Like most other leaders, he was flawed and prone to scorched-earth break-ups.
At age 90, the lion is in winter, his place in history Caribbean history assured, with his life’s work continuing to impact people.
I join an appreciative society in saying Thank you, Mr Panday.