Elma François was T&T’s first female labour leader. She was also the first woman charged with sedition.
A political activist, François was a participant in the “Butler Riots” of 1937 when she was captured by the police and tried for sedition. She was acquitted after her own defence.
Born in St. Vincent in 1897, François worked at a sugar factory but was fired for trying to organise the workers against their employer.
In 1919, she moved to Trinidad in search of better job opportunities, and found a job as a domestic helper at Stollmeyer Castle.
François found niche in the budding labour movements of Arthur Cipriani and Howard-Bishop. This would not last, however, as she saw beyond the exclusivity of socialist-style leadership of the labour movement which clashed with her Garveyite militancy and consciousness.
François is credited with promoting a grassroots approach to the mobilisation of the working class.
She formed the National Unemployed Movement (NUM) in 1934. The NUM started the first Register of unemployed people, and organised regular “Hunger Marches”, protest demonstrations of the unemployed.
In July 1934, in Laventille, police stopped a hunger march of Indian sugar workers from Caroni, preventing the demonstrators from joining the AfricanNUM-protesters in Port-of-Spain.
Ironically, François’ NUM never integrated the Indians. In 1935, it was renamed the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association (NWCSA).
Ever conscious of her African heritage, François sought the empowerment of black people, particularly black women whose voices were silenced in the political sphere.
She is credited with forming the first notable gender-neutral space for political activism, where men and women worked jointly against colonial oppression.
In 1935, when Italy invaded Ethiopia (present day Eritrea), the NWCSA organised a protest by refusing to load Italian ships on the docks.
On June 19, 1937, when the Butler Riots took place, François, through the NWSCA, instigated the first strike in Port-of-Spain, leading to the sedition charge.
In the following years, the NWSCA worked towards the formation of trade unions in northern Trinidad.
François developed goitre in her 40s before passing away in 1944.
In 1987, she was posthumously declared a national heroine of Trinidad and Tobago for “her role in drawing attention to human dignity and effecting radical change towards eradicating mass unemployment and hunger”.