Charismatic labor leader and preacher in Trinidad and Tobago from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler was born in St. Georges, Grenada, on January 21, 1897. Born into a working class family, he received little formal education. He enlisted in the army as a youth during World War I. At the end of the war, he returned to Grenada and in 1921 he moved to Trinidad to work in the growing petroleum industry.
Using simple but impassioned language, Butler became the undisputed leader of the petroleum workers. He presented himself as a messiah, and his speeches were charged with religious metaphors. Butler believed that unemployment and low salaries were the work of the devil, represented by the figures of the petroleum magnates. He also believed that he had been sent by God to free his followers from oppression. In one of his most famous speeches, Butler said, “After years and years of weeping and groanings, untold mysteries and complainings, prayers and petitions, the toiling masses of this colony prayed to the God of Justice and Fair Play, Freedom and Liberty, the God of their ancient and incomparably glorious African forefathers, to send them a leader.”
His involvement in the labor movement and economy of Trinidad began in 1935 when he led a march against hunger. After he was expelled from the Trinidad Labour Party in 1936, he founded the British Empire Citizens’ and Workers’ Home Rule Party. Butler was an essential part of the protests and revolts of 1937 in which the petroleum workers of southern Trinidad demanded better treatment. He was accused of sedition for his involvement in the revolts and was imprisoned from 1937 to 1940. He was imprisoned again in 1941, accused of activities that put the British people at risk during World War II, because Trinidad’s petroleum was essential to the armed forces. He remained in prison from 1941 to 1945.
After his release from prison, he tried to join the leadership of the Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU), but he came into conflict with other OWTU leaders who thought he should make way for new leadership. The internal conflicts in the OWTU culminated with Butler’s expulsion after he was accused of “anti-union activities.” Butler founded his own party, the Butler Party, in 1946, and adopted a new working class philosophy known as butlerism. His political career was short in duration, and some believe he was eclipsed by the appearance of Eric Williams on the political scene.
In 1962, when Trinidad and Tobago became a sovereign nation, Butler’s contributions to the labor movement on behalf of the masses took on greater significance and he was recognized as a hero of the people. In 1970, the government of Trinidad and Tobago awarded him its highest honor: The Cross of Trinidad. Trinidad and Tobago Labor Day is celebrated on June 19 in commemoration of the anniversary of the famous labor revolts led by Butler in 1937.
He died on February 20, 1977.
Author: Luis Galanes
Published: June 13, 2012.
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