How Oil Workers in Trinidad and Tobago Fought to Revolutionize Fossil Fuels

Faced with job losses, oil workers in Trinidad and Tobago put forward a plan for worker ownership. Their fight shows how workers in fossil fuel industries can play a central role in reorienting production to social need.

Members of the Oilfields Workers' Trade Union gathering in solidarity. (Oilfields Workers' Trade Union / Facebook)

For a hundred fifty years, petroleum has shaped the face of the Caribbean working class. It was oil workers who led the “British West Indian labor unrest” of the 1930s, and it was this industry that formed the basis of socialist economies in Cuba and Venezuela. The importance of petroleum — both to the class struggle under capitalism and as the potential basis of a transformative economic vision — is thus a key consideration for organized labor across the region. Trinidad and Tobago is no exception, and in this former British colony lies a significant reserve of over seven hundred million barrels, making it an important economic hub in the hemisphere.

Today, this industry remains the site of an ongoing clash between two competing visions of society. Faced with recent closures that are threatening jobs, the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU) has not just responded with the labor movement’s historical demands for nationalization. Rather, it has sought to build a radical model of employee ownership in which the nation’s refineries are run by the workers themselves.

Following independence in 1962, hopes that the island’s wealth could be used for the benefit of the people were cut short by multinationals such as BP and Texaco, who continued to extract millions of dollars from the twin islands for private profit, carrying on elements of the plantation model and colonialism by other means. In 1993, the state took over the sector, founding the Petroleum Company of Trinidad and Tobago (Petrotrin), but this short-lived victory failed to deliver the dream of a “people’s economy,” recreating many of the same problems as private ownership. With the state struggling to manage the industry in the decades that followed, Keith Rowley’s liberal-inclined government announced its closure in 2018, sending shock waves throughout the country.

It was against this backdrop that the OWTU, led by Ancel Roget, presented its own “Alternative Plan” — a radical proposal not for Petrotrin to stay open under state control, but rather to bring its assets under direct worker-ownership. In so doing, it hoped to fulfill organized labor’s historic mission to overcome the lingering legacy of the exploitative plantation model, to move past the limitations of nationalization, and put workers themselves in control of the commanding heights of the economy. The plan meant building true democracy at work and lasting employee ownership, moving toward something fundamentally new and radical — while saving sixty-five hundred union jobs in the here and now.

The plan for a worker-owned refinery also had a broader social mission. Seeking to shield its assets from foreign corporations, it hoped to provide gasoline to small farmers and fishermen and reintroduce much-needed apprenticeship programs for young people. More than that, it promised to use oil profits to enrich the population and finance community-wealth building through partnerships with groups as varied as Artist Coalitions, credit unions, and cooperatives. It sought to build a new kind of trade unionism in the Caribbean, in which workers could become masters and owners of the core economy.

Echoing the struggle of Lucas Aerospace workers’ fight to reorient production in 1970s Britain, the refineries were not ultimately brought into employee ownership. But the OWTU’s temporary setback is only the start of an ongoing development — one which raises fundamental questions about the objectives and role of trade unions themselves, the importance of democracy at work to that vision, and how workers in fossil fuel industries can lead the charge to restructure society for the many.

Oil in the Caribbean

As a British colonial possession, the oil industry in Trinidad and Tobago has been shaped and controlled primarily by private capital since its first drilling in 1857. Despite the formation of the publicly owned “Trinidad Oilfields Ltd.” in 1910, this short-lived company was quickly taken over by Shell’s subsidiary, the United British Oilfields of Trinidad (UBOT), which quickly began expanding the sector and sinking new wells. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, Anglo-Iranian Oil (today known as BP) took control of many oil fields in the southern part of the island, turning rice- and cocoa-producing communities into oil-producing towns for the British empire. Trinidad and Tobago’s oil industry brought the colony into World War II as the refineries became critical Allied refueling depots.

Independence in 1962 did not put an end to the domination of private capital, as multinationals continued to dominate the former colony’s economy. BP went on to take over a number of local rivals, while Texaco took over operations at Brighton and Antilles as well as the refinery at Pointe-à-Pierre. Anglo-Iranian Oil (BP), Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd., and UBOT eventually formed the Trinidad Northern Area (Trinmar), a joint venture for offshore drilling. In fact, Amoco’s first venture outside of its native United States was in 1961 in Trinidad, taking ownership from the Pan American Petroleum and Transport Company (PAT), who had obtained exploration rights to a large offshore acreage just as Trinidad and Tobago was heading to independence.

This is not to say that successive governments did not seek to intervene in the economy. A number of “five year plans” and interventions between the 1960s and ’70s aimed to use some of the nation’s oil revenues to invest in other sectors and expand infrastructure. Subsequently, they moved to take over part of the industry, buying out Shell and establishing the Trinidad and Tobago Oil Company (Trintoc). This represented a limited attempt by the state to implement a form of national economic populism, aligning some of the interests of domestic and international capital.

In 1993, the entire sector, both the state-owned firms and private firms, was merged into the state-owned Petroleum Company of Trinidad and Tobago (Petrotrin) by the center-left/neoliberal government of Patrick Manning. This firm was largely concentrated in the three core areas of land production, offshore production and refining, but in 2001, Petrotrin bought out all other private partners, becoming a fully integrated state-run firm — dominating the national oil sector, and seeming to fulfill the historical demands and aspirations of organized labor.

The Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union

These changes didn’t just come from above. Worker uprisings had torn through British-controlled areas in the Caribbean at least as early as the 1930s — as the consequence of decades of underdevelopment and political oppression. The expansion of the oil industry itself brought with it the mass displacement of local communities and influx of migrants from the wider Caribbean. Increasing worker resistance and militancy led to the abandonment of the official labor organizations recognized by the colonial authorities in the Port of Spain. Led by Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler, himself a migrant worker from Grenada and former service member of the British West India Regiment, workers held secret conferences culminating in the foundation of the independent OWTU in 1937.

The first major strike took place in June that year, when workers at the Apex Oilfields, led by Butler, downed tools over the abuses of workers’ rights. This strike, which was confronted by the armed forces, rapidly transformed into one of the largest uprisings against colonial rule the country had ever seen, before it was brutally crushed at the cost of fourteen dead and hundreds injured. Despite having then imprisoned Butler, the British colonial regime decided on pragmatic terms to recognize the OWTU that September, with the movement founded by Butler now continued out of prison by his friend and lawyer, Adrian Cola Rienzi.

Following World War II, unionization intensified, with strikes, occupations, and political actions resulting in a titanic march from Pointe-à-Pierre to San Fernando in 1950. These campaigns did not end with formal independence in 1962, with BP workers striking for a solid fifty-seven days, winning substantial wage increases and a forty-hour week alongside workers at Texaco winning their first pension plan just one year later. By 1967, the OWTU came to realize that the problem was more systemic, that collective agreements would not suffice, and that a local oil company — owned by the state — was a necessary step in rectifying the worsening situation in the industry. The OWTU led the call for outright nationalization of BPs assets, which culminated in the foundation of the state-owned company Trintopec.

The Black Power Revolution — a mass social movement which erupted in the 1970s throughout Trinidad and Tobago — also sought greater popular control as a fulfillment of the independence movement and linked up with the oil worker union to jointly demand ownership of “the commanding heights of the economy.” As a direct consequence of their involvement in this social upheaval, OWTU was targeted by the state like never before. The then president general of the union, George Weekes, and other officers of the union were arrested and detained for seven months. Police raided the union offices and the government passed a flurry of hostile anti-worker laws. The Party of Independence, which had claimed to align with the Black Power movement, also turned against the working class and increasingly supported the interests of foreign capital.

After a major strike by Texaco workers at Pointe-à-Pierre was put down by the military in 1975, a subsequent “Texaco must go” campaign resulted in appointment of a Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the operations of Texaco within Trinidad and Tobago. The union, still holding significant power in the country, presented two memoranda to the commission again calling for the full nationalization of the oil industry. A second major strike in 1984 led to the withdrawal of Texaco from the country and provoked the government to nationalize the remaining assets. This nationalization project, which took place in incremental stages, was, as noted, completed by a center-left government in 2001 while the vast majority of Petrotrin’s workers were members of OWTU.

Financing and Eventual Closure

High oil prices throughout the 2000s fueled economic growth in Trinidad and Tobago. But Petrotrin’s position as the engine of that growth masked mounting cronyism, which had damaged productivity, increased debt, and threatened workers’ safety. The OWTU developed radical proposals for the restructuring of the state-owned company, integrating the workforce into a tripartite management committee. Despite these proposals being accepted, this ultimately short-lived experiment created a partial form of democracy at work which began to redress the firm’s failures; it came to an end after the relatively progressive energy minister was replaced in 2011 — leaving the company in terminal decline.

It became clear that the situation of the firm was critical, and to avert a complete and sudden closure, workers on the shop floor drew up their own restructuring plans, which the OWTU presented to the government in 2018. A state committee approved the recommendations, and a further tripartite memorandum was signed by April. Before the ink was dry, Petrotrin refused to implement the agreement, triggering direct action and demonstrations outside the prime minister’s office. Later that day, the union was informed that Petrotrin would, after all, be closing.

The decision to shut down Petrotrin threatened to result in the direct loss of over nine thousand jobs in the critically important state-owned company, affecting the economic and social lives of thousands of workers and citizens in the neighboring communities. It resulted in millions lost monthly to regional economies through the importation of petroleum products. With wealth no longer anchored in the community, profits now again went to international companies. The government lost millions of dollars moving from being an earner of foreign exchange from refining to a buyer of foreign exchange to purchase petroleum products, and the replacement of competent and skilled workers led to a decline in all crude oil production.

Between renationalization and privatization at the hands of foreign capital, the union took a new position — for the workers to run the refinery themselves. In collaboration with the grassroots mass membership in all of Petrotrin’s different areas of operation, they immediately began developing what was termed “The Alternative Plan.” The core of the plan was to salvage the factory by bringing it into employee ownership, returning it to profitability, and repaying its $850 million debt. It was submitted to the company board, the prime minister and president, the opposition leader, and to the people themselves on September 13, 2018.

The union also mobilized in support of the plan nationally, holding public meetings, conferences, and media interviews. They held the “Mother of All Marches” on October 3-5 that same year, while legally challenging the decision to close the company. Despite an industrial court ruling in favor of the union, Petrotrin went ahead with the closure, fully supported by the state. Indeed, the decision to close was to a large extent ideologically liberal: not driven by the country’s best economic interests — but the result of the political visions of the administration. In an entire century, the people of Trinidad and Tobago had owned the sector for only thirty-six years, and state ownership came to an end when the government decided to close Petrotrin and sell the refining assets.

Assuming the OTWU would reject his proposal and remain committed to state ownership, the prime minister stated in a televised address that should Petrotrin be sold off, “the OWTU will be given the first option to own and operate it on the most favorable terms.” This was a political miscalculation, as the union broke with the stale left position of demanding nationalization and quickly accepted the offer — founding its own company “Patriotic Energies and Technologies Co. Ltd.” and publicly presenting its intention to bid for ownership in October 2018. The union predicted that certain restructuring would produce a return to profits of between $400 million and $800 million in the first year, based on an analysis of the crude oil markets.

In August 2019, Patriotic Ltd. beat seventy other contenders to acquire the refineries and its assets for $700 million. The government offered a three-year moratorium and ten years to cover the initial payment in addition to various terms and conditions which the union accepted.

But there were problems. Patriotic was assured repeatedly during negotiations that no creditor consents were required for the transfer of the assets. It wasn’t until July 2020, after acquisition, that the government first notified Patriotic of this retroactive requirement, adding in August that the company would also require the lenders’ consent. These new commercial arrangements contradicted the 2019 terms, and attorneys on both sides could not reach an agreement, as the sticking point rested ultimately on the assets and bondholders’ consent. By October, it had become clear to the union that the government was not prepared to discuss a resolution — rejecting numerous solutions proposed by the oil workers.

In short, the government changed the terms of sale at the last minute to force the OWTU to abandon its financial arrangements, leaving them with the impossible task of having to raise $700 million in two months, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. With this, the dream of a worker-owned industry was, at least for now, suspended — beaten by a mixture of hard economic facts and political maneuvering. As in previous cases where union buyouts were sabotaged and governments had withdrawn support, such as Youngstown Sheet and Tube in the United States, lessons may be learned.

Its important to remember that in taking this step, the OWTU has carved out a new strategic position in the field of labor organizing. It mobilized its membership, resources, and popular community support to attempt a radical and potentially effective response to offshoring and privatization through building employee ownership. With the political left in opposition, the OWTU showed that the labor movement can still take direct steps to resist the rigors of global capitalism and anchor wealth in the community.

Ours to Own and Master

Throughout Trinidad and Tobago’s history, the plantation model was almost always maintained as the mode of production. A small and entitled group always controlled the means of production on behalf of international capital, and despite minor breakthroughs, this disparity continues today in a form of “neocolonialism” which fundamentally benefits foreign capital interests.

The acquisition of the refinery by a people’s organization would not only have been a job-saving strategy, but a major paradigm shift in society. It would have created a lasting example of democracy at work. Elements within the government and employing class understood that worker ownership of the oil industry would have represented an historic break with the prevailing historical hegemony within the country, transcending even the usual union and political left responses to these injustices — a pandora’s box which they may have sought to deliberately sabotage.

Pragmatically, it would have put sixty-five hundred workers directly back to work while providing many more with contracts for repairs, maintenance, and upgrading. Wealth would have stayed where it was produced, with Patriotic remaining 100 percent locally owned. Special offers would have been given to local tradespeople, the fishing industry, etc., and, as noted, training programs for local people to take over management positions from foreigners were to be set up, meaning that an amount of the surplus value was to be reinvested in the community. The OWTU as the primary shareholder would not have been for the benefit of the union itself, but that of the workers of Trinidad and Tobago.

After the collapse of any form of discussion related to the refinery, the efforts to take it over were thwarted. In effect, the worst-case scenario was realized. But with the union exploring the possibility of developing an employee-owned industry, it has prepared plans to use Patriotic Ltd. to explore land fields and support workers seeking to resuscitate and run other idle wells left out in the fields. Worker ownership is by no means a dead idea.

Lessons Learned

The ruling class will do everything to ensure that workers don’t own the means of production and that the status quo remains. Their world seeks to keep workers in precarity, fearing job losses, with short-term contracts and vulnerable to union busting. This is the model of conquest, of chattel slavery and indentureship. Despite the assets of a nation belonging first and foremost to its people, the real power in the oil industry rested with the bondholders, equity firms, and capitalists. With both major political parties dependent on those who own the means of production, as in other countries there is no forum for the real democratic exercise of power.

The takeover of the commanding heights of the economy, in this case the oil industry, would have impacted the fundamental relations of economic power in the country, producing a kind of “trickle down unionism.” It would have set an example. The dream of democracy at work — today echoed by leading contemporary figures such as Richard D. Wolff, Bernie Sanders, and Yanis Varoufakis — came, in this case, into conflict with some of the most notorious elements of international capitalism, while challenging colonial legacies.

The presence of the multinational companies in the oilfields may not have been disrupted in the short term. It remains a key step in the struggle to deconstruct the local power structure. Trinidad and Tobago was on the threshold of a new stage in political, economic, and social development. The vision was for local power to be vested in workers and the people themselves, not the traditional elites, be they private or state managed. To sustain and further this development, we must never let go of what brought us here — collective struggle and class consciousness. This eight-five-year-old institution remains committed to equity, social justice, and a decent standard of living for all.