My Association with Mr. Alrett Peters
By; Will Johnson
I first met Alrett in 1966 when I was Secretary of the Public Transportation Committee. He was appointed as the member representing the taxi drivers.
We had our first meeting at the old Police Station on the Back Street. Mr. Jelle van den Bos a police officer was also a member and if I remember correctly Mr. Jocelyn Arndell was the Chairman.
I always remember Alrett for his smile and his sense of humor. I remember him once telling me the story of how he went to pay his respects to a dead person in Cole Bay. Each person coming into the room where the body was laid out in the coffin would pass comments like;’ Man he looking nice.’ Or “I never see he look so pretty yet’, and so on. Alrett said he turned to the person next to him and said;’ Tell me something partner, he’s dead isn’t he?’ But the compliments kept on coming in the direction of the dead man in the coffin.
After the meeting we talked further outside the building and a friendship was established.
The first mistake we made was to call a meeting in the P.M.I.A. hall on the Back Street with all the taxi drivers. The purpose of the meeting was to instruct the taxi-drivers as to their obligations. However that message did not get across. They thought that we were calling on them to unionize. One taxi driver (a friend of Claude’s no doubt) even asked us what was the name of the new political party we were forming. Well it ended up to be both a union and a political party.
Mr. Peters went on to form the General Workers Union and the St.Maarten Taxi Association.
The death of ‘Baco’ brought back memories of that period in my life. The papers did not mention that ‘Baco’ had an accident and lost his leg when he was a young man. He was a great football player before he lost his leg if I remember correct. He served for a time as Secretary of the Union at the Union Headquarters in Cole Bay.
I don’t know too much about Alrett’s life before St.Maarten, other than that he had been born in Santo Domingo from St.Maarten parents. His wife was also from Santo Domingo and he had lived and worked on Aruba for thirty years as a taxi driver. In 1966 he decided to come to St.Maarten land of his ancestors and it is then that I became friends with him.
The Public Transportation Committee was quickly perceived as a threat to government. As Secretary I did not get any pay. Once the law on public transportation was passed, the Secretary of the Committee was given NAfls. 25.—per month (an enormous sum at the time), and I was removed from the Committee. You see how they treat me! Or as the President of Iran told a reporter;” See how you talk down to my country!” That type of treatment only makes a person or a country more determined to do what they think is right.
And so Alrett did not even have to ask for help from me. The General Workers Union was established on November 20th, 1966. The first board members of the union were:
Mr. Alrett Peters, President; Mr. Raphael J. Maccow, Vice President; Mr. Julian Lynch, General Secretary, Mr. Julian Brookson, Commissioner and Mr. James Milton was Vice Treasurer.
I stayed in the background and came up with the idea of starting a newspaper for the union. I worked in the Receivers Office at the time and my salary was f.192.50 a month and I could not afford to lose my job.
I have a disease called ‘hypergraphia’. I learned this recently while waiting at the clinic on Dr. Jack Buchanan and reading whatever was available in the waiting room. The disease is described as ‘having an uncontrollable urge to write.’
Despite J.P. Morgan’s advice to Neil Vanderbilt I decided to jump into the field of journalism.
When told by young Neil Vanderbilt that he was thinking of a career in journalism, Morgan growled; ‘That’s awful. A journalist usually winds up by becoming a chronic drunkard or by remaining a journalist. I do not know which is worst.’ (“Fortunes Children”, by Arthur Vanderbilt.)
The first part of the advice applied to me for a long time, and I am still a journalist of sorts
Everyone knew that even though Alrett Peters was the official Editor that it was I who really wrote the Labour Spokesman. Alrett had established the Union headquarters in Cole Bay on property owned by his family. The ACE hardware store is where the Union headquarters used to be.
It was very quiet back then in Cole Bay. I can remember as if yesterday turning out the newspaper on an old stencil machine given to us by a Union in Trinidad. In my minds eye I can see Alrett’s father sitting there and the two of us talking. Sometimes I would read things to him from the paper and he would say in amazement;’ You put all of that in the paper, in truth?’
I would put lots of provocative stuff in that paper. In order to make a statement that Claude had more money than people thought I would have as a headline; “Wathey denies intentions to buy Caribbean,’ followed by; ‘In an exclusive interview with Wathey’s favourite reporter he denied that he intended buying the Caribbean. At one point he had thought about buying Puerto Rico, but his plantation St.Maarten is giving him enough headaches already, especially now that a union has been established etc.etc.’
People used to tell me that Claude would tell his people; “That boy is going to land Alrett Peters in jail and he won’t even know why he has been locked up.”
In 1969 Alrett and his father and some of the Union Members returned my support for the union by signing up the URA list. (As Vincent Lopes, called it the ‘United Russian Alliance). The Democrat Party thought that I was a safe bet and that I would not get the 35 signatures needed on St.Maarten to get my list of candidates approved. Thanks to people like Alexander Richardson (‘Alec The Butcher’), Alrett Peters and his father and members of the union and some other brave friends I got the number of signatures just before the deadline. Unlike 1967 when there were no elections, I saved face for the Windward Islands.
After the riots on Curacao, Alrett came to me at the Pasangrahan beach bar where I used to hang out in those years. We made a petition for a demonstration of solidarity with the workers on Curacao. Well you can imagine how well that was received. Police on we tail wherever we went. People being told to prepare for the town to be burned down by Peters and Will Johnson and them.
A friend from the inner circles warned me to be careful. She had heard remarks being made and that caution was required. Around that time a few bodies had been found floating in waters off St.Maarten. Bodies of local people mind you. My friend did not feel I should be one of them.
Anyway in the end Clem Labega, Alrett Peters and I met at the same beach bar and reached a compromise. Everyone would get a half-day off and the request for a demonstration would be withdrawn .Nevertheless the union showed some power and strengthened its hand in the process
It was not always success though. I remember once that Alrett, Julian Lynch and others had organized Spritzer & Fuhrmann N.V. in the course of one weekend. After management went on the offensive by the next weekend out of probably forty employees, the Unions total was zero. Yes you read me correct.
We did fix Little Bay Hotel though. The workers were not getting the trunk. The hotel decided that the tips were being used to pay employees in the off season. I used to like to hang out at the Little Bay Hotel beach bar as well. There I met and became friends with people like Forbes Burnham and his press secretary David de Groot. I remember once Clem Labega, I, and several others were under a heavy discussion using ever foul word a West Indian can think up, when someone whispered that we should have some respect. The young lady sitting at the end of the bar was HRH Princess Irene. Yes the same one that Governor Japa Beaujon had nearly fired me for dancing with, not once but twice, at the Passangrahan, under the sea grape tree.
Anyway I used my time at the beach bar to distribute a pamphlet asking the tourists not to pay tips to the hotel as the employees were not getting any. They came to the table with the union quickly after that and the problem was solved.
I stayed with the ‘Labour Spokesman’ until 1973 when I moved to Saba. Dennis Pantophlet took over the paper and let me tell you Dennis wasn’t easy either. His pen was steeped in the same bitter bush as mine was.
During part of the years of the Labour Spokesman Mr. Melford Hazel had put me up in the Sea View Hotel, in a room above the Taj Mahal. What an address. When the paper was about ready to be printed Alrett would come and we would go over it together. Sometimes Sam Hazel would join us. He was Commissioner and a member of the D.P. To his credit I must say that he took the criticism of his government in stride. I can hear him now coming to the room asking me ;’What lies are you putting in the paper this time?’
After I left for Saba, Alrett continued with the Union and started a bus service. He had become a bit disillusioned with union matters. He had tried to ward off tour companies and car rentals by trying to get the taxi drivers to unite and invest in these companies themselves. Also he thought they should join up and all buy the same type of cars and get a better price from the dealers. However the ideas all fell through because they all thought too individualistic.
In Joseph H. Lake Jr.s’ book “Friendly Anger” he writes; “ In the early 1970’s the GWFWI membership peaked with nearly 500 workers. It also began to publish its news organ, the Labour Spokesman, edited at one point by Will Johnson, who would go on to become an important politician in Saba and the rest of the Netherlands Antilles.’
Under the photo caption on page 97, he writes: “Will Johnson was the main writer of the Labour Spokesman, founded on St.Maarten by Alrett Peters in August 1968 as the ‘Voice of the General Workers Union of the Windward Islands”. Johnson wrote for the union paper from 1968 until 1973 when he left Great Bay for Saba where he became a leading politician.”
Alrett died relatively young. I believe he was only in his sixties when he died. He had a number of health issues. When he died I was somewhere abroad. Weeks after, my brother Freddie said to me;” I read that your friend Peters had died while you were away.”
That was the first time I had heard of his death. To this day it hurts me that I did not see him before he died. We had been good friends and had worked together for a good cause. And I did not land him in jail after all as Claude had predicted.
On July 24th, 2007 when I made a speech about Claude in the community center on the Backstreet a lady friend of Alrett’s approached me and thanked me for my friendship with him. She knew and remembered.
Alrett Peters was the founding father of Unionism in the Windward Islands. As I salute his memory I can state how proud I am that I knew him and was able to work along with him. I am also sad that I do not have a single copy of the “Labour Spokesman” and I don’t know of anyone who has a copy either. Such is life.