October 14, 1897
April 17, 1944
Elma François was born in Overland, St. Vincent, to Stanley and Estina François. Her early years were shaped by her primary school education and her remarkable awareness of the straitened conditions of life in Kingstown, the capital city, an awareness that François acquired after her family moved there when she was five years old to escape the ravages of volcanic eruptions. Her genuine appreciation and concern for the plight of fellow workers on the cotton estates gave rise to her labor activism and association with labor organizer George McIntosh.
In 1919 at the age of twenty-two, leaving behind a son who would later join her, François was lured to Trinidad by the promise of greater economic opportunities. In the prevailing depression conditions she worked as a domestic and soon joined the Trinidad Workingmen's Association (TWA), known as the Trinidad Labour Party (TLP) after 1934. For François, political activity meant working among people, so her "rap sessions," political speeches, and hunger marches in and around Port of Spain often went beyond the parameters set by the TWA/TLP.
In 1934 François was one of the founders of the National Unemployed Movement (NUM), which transformed itself into the more structured Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association (NWCSA) at the end of 1935. This association embraced political, trade union, cooperative, research, educational, and social work activities and was responsible for the formation of three major trade unions in Trinidad and Tobago: the Seamen and Waterfront Workers' Trade Union (SWWTU), the National Union of Government Workers (NUGW), and the Federated Workers Union, which later joined with the NUGW to form the NUGFW. One member, Dudley Mahon, aptly described François's role in the organization: "We looked up to her for leadership and she was always right. We had a lot of confidence in her." (Reddock, 1988, p.17)
The communist-inspired NWCSA concentrated on the country's poor and working class, organizing domestic servants and women transporting coal on the Port of Spain docks, and by the end of 1936 it was challenging the more mainstream TWA/TLP leader, A. A. Cipriani. The NWCSA highlighted the high cost of living, petitioned against the destruction of small black businesses by the Shop Hours (Opening and Closing) Ordinance, which favored larger enterprises, and led the campaign against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. With T. U. B. Butler, a catalyst of the labor movement, the NWCSA was part of the historic labor disturbances starting June 19, 1937. These led to the arrest of François, Butler, and other NWCSA members, and the Sedition Trials of 1937–1938. François, who undertook her own successful defense, earned the distinction of being the first woman in Trinidad and Tobago's history to be tried for sedition.
François identified June 19, 1937, as the date of the new emancipation of labor, and in 1939 the NWCSA reactivated the celebration of August 1, the first Emancipation Day, at a time when others preferred to forget the slave experience. In 1939, unlike most organizations, François and the NWCSA campaigned against Caribbean workers' participation in World War II, an extremely radical action at that time.
With her untimely death, the NWCSA lost much of its momentum, but her historical significance in the cause of labor and socialism is undisputed. On September 26, 1987 (Republic Day), she was made a National Heroine of Trinidad and Tobago, and she remains the source of much pride in her native St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Reddock, Rhoda. Elma François, the NWCSA, and the Worker's Struggle for Change in the Caribbean. London: New Beacon Books, 1988.
Reddock, Rhoda. Women, Labour, and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago: A History. London: Zed Books, 1994.
Rennie, Bukka. The History of the Working Class in the 20th Century (1919–1950). Trinidad and Tobago: New Beacon Movement, 1973.
Yelvington, Kevin. "The War in Ethiopia and Trinidad: 1935–1936." In The Colonial Caribbean in Transition, edited by Bridget Brereton and Kevin Yelvington, pp. 189–225. Mona, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 1999.
rhoda e. reddock (2005)