“The strike is in the air. Clear the deck and standby for action!”
Those were the instructions Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler gave to a small group gathered outside Lum Tack’s shop in Fyzabad, a few days before June 19, 1937.
Soogrim Coolman was just seven years old at the time, but Butler’s words resonated with him. As he vividly recalled the days leading up to the birth of the local labour movement 83 years ago, Coolman waved his arms as he repeated Butler’s words: “Standby for action!”
In an interview at the home of his friend Doodnath Maharaj at Guapo Road, Coolman, a former executive member of the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU), recounted his experiences in those early years of the labour movement. At 91, his hearing and memory are sharp.
He said he was forced to mature quickly, finding himself in the thick of the action, avidly following Butler’s exploits and those experiences changed his life.
Overcome with nostalgia and shaking with excitement, Coolman said: “The way he spoke interfered with your body.”
Jobs were hard to come by in the early 1900s when T&T was still under British rule. Coolman said when locals got jobs in the oilfields, they would go to work with forks, shovels, hoes and cutlasses. There was no machinery, the wages were low and workers wanted more.
“Butler was the first man who started talking about getting our own police, judges, magistrates and those kinds of things. He wanted everything to be our own. He wanted freedom, meaning let us do everything for ourselves,” he said.
T&T achieved Independence from Britain long after Butler began that conversation, he said.
June 19, 1937 was a turning point in the civil rights movement. Butler had risen to prominence and when police corporal Charlie King was killed while attempting to stop a meeting at Bhola’s Junction in Fyzabad, Coolman was a curious boy searching for his path in life.
“Well I can remember almost everything,” he said. In the 1930s, Butler had started agitating for workers’ rights. In 1935, he led a hunger strike at the Apex oilfields in Fyzabad. In 1937, he was charged with sedition but failed to appear in court on June 14.
On Saturday, June 19, 1937, Coolman’s father Oudit, told his mother: “Look, I do not feel to go to work today.”
She replied: “Just go and see if anybody is working.’”
His father returned home at 11 am and the family went to a shop in the town to buy groceries. Coolman remembered that his father and mother returned home, but he took up his portion of the goods and placed them under the old post office. He was excited by the activities in the town, and curiosity got the better of him.
“I saw when Butler came out, and they started singing. I went by Charlie King corner, the shop that was there. This policeman, Charlie King he came, and he began chucking people. ‘Get out! Get Out! Get out!’
When Charlie King began to move people, it was about six o’clock. Two Grenadian fellows came in, and he came out by the shop. Do you know those pieces of wood that are placed across doors? One of them picked up the wood, and the other chap took up a piece of a boulder. In those days you could take the gravel from San Fernando Hill, and he had a boulder from there.
“Charlie King jumped over the counter, and when he reached by the window, there was a lot of tins with pitch oil and goods. Charlie King just moved it out, threw the pitch oil outside and he jumped over when the people came. They just left when he jumped over.”
Coolman said King had to do this because those men were going to kill him.
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“They did not know what position the window was, but it was about 30 feet off the ground. The Chinese owner of the shop was there, and he went inside. He did not know anything about the man jumping over. Nobody knew,” he said.
“When it was a little dark, the owner lit the gas lamp and put it up. Suddenly, I saw him came by the parlour side, took up the lamp, out it and put it under the counter. He came back to where he sold the goods, took up that light and threw it out the window. We did not know what happened with gas, pitch oil and oil. We did not even hear Charlie King bawl. We saw what happened there, but nobody was looking for Charlie King because he was just moving out people. Nobody missed him.”
The spot where the police found King’s charred corpse is now the location of Bhola’s Hardware
Asked why he stayed back after his parents went home, a smiling Coolman said: “I was watching to see what was happening. It was action down there you know. Real action.”
Butler in hiding
While all that was happening, Butler was addressing a crowd at Bhola’s corner. Coolman estimated that there were 600 people there. Then the police came.
He recalled: “They had a big set of rumbling and noise. With that, I heard Butler say, ‘Should I go?’ The people said no.”
As the police began clearing the street, Coolman remembered seeing Butler taking off his hat, tie and jacket and slipping past the police. He walked to the Siparia Road, where he met a taxi driver.
“Trouble boy! Trouble!” Butler told the driver.
Butler became a labour activist after he got injured on the job and was dismissed without severance, compensation or any medical assistance. The injury left him walking with a limp and ended his career in the oilfields.
The taxi driver took Butler to his relatives’ home in Marabella, but no one was there. They then drove to Central Trinidad where Butler sought refuge at someone’s home. After three days, Butler’s friends took him to a parlour on Charlotte Street where he stayed.
“This is what Butler told me,” Coolman said.
Although Coolman saw Butler as a child, the two did not meet until 1963 while he was taking workers to La Brea. A wrong turn led him to the place where he saw Butler.
“As we turned, I saw Butler coming down from the house. The steps shook like it could fall at any time. I said, ‘Chief, how are you doing?’ He said, ‘Come and take lunch man.’
Coolman said it was difficult to ascend the wobbly staircase and he was shocked at Butler’s deplorable living conditions. Boiled potatoes and dasheens were scattered about the house and the bedsheets were stained.
Coolman went to OWTU leader George Weekes in San Fernando and told him about Butler’s condition. Weekes instructed him to fix the house and ensure it was supplied with electricity and water.
After that, he visited Butler on the weekends.
Coolman said the events off 1937 changed his life, inspiring him to activism, even as a child.
He said before Butler there were no gatherings of workers, people were quiet. He recalled a town where there was no market, so people sold their goods on the roadsides. There were just 11 taxis, and a bus would pass through town ever so often. There was one school and one church.
Coolman said even in the early days of the OWTU, trade unions and the government never saw eye to eye. He does not see this ever changing as there will always be a difference of perspectives.
When Butler died in 1977, Coolman was one of the people at his bedside.
Coolman started his career in the oilfields at age 15 as a bench fitter apprentice with Trinidad Leasehold Ltd in Forest Reserve. At that time, most of the residents in Fyzabad only spent seven years in primary school as there was no secondary school in the community and it was difficult getting into a secondary school in San Fernando.
After completing his apprenticeship, he took up a job at Apex Trinidad Oilfields where he spent four years. He went to India on a scholarship then went to England for a year before returning home. He began working on a construction site in Savonetta for a few years before returning to Apex. He worked at a few other companies until age 56 where he retired as a foreman.“As soon as I qualified as a tradesman, I immediately joined the union. There was a shop steward by the name of Mr Wharton. He brought the form, and I immediately signed it. They called me into the trade union office, and I took the oath of membership,”he said.
Coolman started as a member of the OWTU Fyzabad committee and was elevated to the president’s seat. Former OWTU president general George Weekes asked him to contest a trustee position in an executive election, which he won. He held the position for two terms.