Vincent Noel was born on St. Andrew 31 March 1947 and was a student at Grenada Boys Secondary School. He died at Fort Rupert on 19 October 1983.
Vincent Noel had been working in accounts, but resigned his last commercial position in November 1978. In late 1978, he was President of the Bank and General Workers Union (BGWU) which he founded in 1977. Noel's other union positions include Vice-President of the Trade Union Council (TUC), as well as Vice-President of the Commercial & Industrial Workers Union (CIWU).
A member of NJM, Vincent Noel was one of 14 persons named to the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) of Grenada on 16 March 1979. At that time he was married with one child. Noel was a principal in the dispute with Barclays Bank and Grenada Breweries to recognize the BGWU.
At one time he was Vice-minister of National Mobilisation in the People's Revolutionary Government and a member of the Party's Political Bureau.
The narrative below is a selection of a piece written by Vincent Noel for the publication In the Spirit of Butler: Trade Unionism in Free Grenada, first published in March, 1982 by Fedon Publishers, St. George's, Grenada.
Following the sell-out by sections of the trade union bureaucracy in 1974, there was a great cry amongst the working class of Grenada to have serious and militant leaders to lead their struggles, so that all workers would be encouraged to become active trade unionists. There was a determination among the workers that their trade unions must betray them no more.
I was an accounting clerk in Hutchinson's, a firm in St. George's. We started a section of the Commercial and Industrial Workers' Union there, and instituted regular monthly meetings. Our first concerns were for proper contracts and better wages and conditions for our members.
Some trade unionists, including myself, from different unions, established a progressive caucus of the trade union movement, and we began to duplicate the distribute the Workers' Voice. Despite his Newspaper Amendment Act, Gairy could never muzzle it and it always came out and helped to inform and inspire trade unionists throughout the country, as well as link up their struggles. Gairy was always trying to track us down, and we moved the duplicating machine continuously from house to house and school to school and he never caught up with it.
By mid-1977 I had become First Vice-president of the C.I.W.U. We fought every single democratic struggle, had regular meetings, educational programmes and introduced several democratic procedures that the union had not known before. We had much greater discussion, particularly in decision-making, we investigated corruption and found that the books were not being properly audited, and we made sure more people came to our meetings by providing transport. We scraped up the money to pay for this from our own pockets, and also got some help from the party.
The existing leadership of the union called us communists and hot-heads, and accused us of trying to take political control of the union because we were supporters and militants of the New Jewel Movement. And yet they were all on the executive of the Grenada National Party! Gairy also saw increasing danger in our approach to trade unionism - the idea of democratic control and mass action by the membership made him feel very uncomfortable. In the struggle to win a cost of living allowance of the workers at Jonas Browne and Hubbard's, we were fighting the company, Gairy and the president of our own union, simultaneously. Our own president tried to make deals behind our backs with the firm, and he called off the boycott of the company's cargo which the dockers had implemented in solidarity with us. But we still won $110,000 for our members, which is what we had asked for. The president, however, played a double game and went ahead and reached a compromise with the company for seven of our members to go to court to see if they were aggrieved. The courts, of course, backed up the employers and our members lost the case and were eventually sacked. We learned many lessons from that struggle and swore we would never allow such things to happen again.
Meanwhile, Gairy was trying to poach our members into his own union from the banana industry, Bata Shoes and L.A. Purcell's in particular. He threatened the employers too and sent his men to harass them. Then he called a meeting of all commercial workers in St. George's. He proclaimed that ever since 1951 he had been the hero of the working class in Grenada, and that his union was campaigning for a minimum $160 a month. From the meeting I thanked him for his announcement, but pointed out that it was only members of his union who were receiving anything like that sort of wage, and that our union was called for a $250 monthly minimum! I noticed as I spoke that I was being surrounded by his mongoose men. One came and stood right behind me, and another sat down directly facing me, staring at me hard and patting his side pocket menacingly, as if he had a gun in there. I carried on outlining to the workers the steadily increasing prices of sugar, saltfish, transport to and from work, school fees and the general cost of living. He then interrupted me, clearly flustered, and announced: Mr. Noel will now lead you all in prayer! Ah, but no, communists don't like praying, so I'll lead the prayer! And after that he simply closed the meeting.
The selection above is the story of the start of Vincent Noel's life in politics and the trade union movement.
Noel had not taken part in the 13 March 1979 coup because he had been jailed by Gairy's forces upon Gairy's departure for the United Nations on 12 March. In the early 1980 Coca-Cola Bottling Company strike, Noel led the worker's action as head of the NJM-affiliated Bank and General Workers Union.
According the Central Committee Meeting minutes of 24 June 1981, Noel expressed this view about the situation with the Rastafarians:
Cde. Noel said that there is a difference between the rastas who are planning the offensive and the rank and file: the Nya Bingis must be a preparation for a movement; Cde. McBarnette should prepare a propaganda team for the dissemination of the news regionally: must consider the possibility of a national address by the Comrade Leader: the army should prepare a programme for the rastas who will be picked up - wake up time, eat time, books, films, pacifying music etc. - a rigid programme.
On 22 July 1981, at the Central Committee Meeting, the Organizing Committee of the Party raised the issue of the performance of the Workers Committee. Noel was removed from Chairmanship of the Central Committee, the Political Bureau, and the Workers Committee for poor work performance.
Noel's alliances were generally in the same direction as Maurice Bishop, Unison Whiteman, Jacqueline Creft, Kendrick Radix, George Louison and Unison Whiteman supporting educational reform and mass participation.
On 17 October 1983, Vince Noel Letter to Central Committee was written. Most of the events described in Noel's letter took place from the 11th through 13th October. On the 13th, after visiting with Maurice Bishop who was under house arrest, Noel was also put under house arrest.
On the morning of 19th October, Noel was among those gathering the early morning crowds. At Mt. Wheldale, Noel was right up front in the attempt to get Bishop freed. He was one of those in the forefront of the Army Headquarters Building at Fort Rupert and was among those handing out weapons from the arsenal.
Noel was part of the communication team in touch with army brass at Fort Frederick, brusquely advising them to give themselves up to the nearest police station. According to Brizan such talk was ill-advised, indiscreet, and an incalculable error, as it convinced the Coard faction that an armed assault was ordered on them at Fort Frederick. This more than anything else was responsible for all the violence that followed.
Vince Noel was among the first to be shot in the bottom square of Fort Rupert on the balcony of the veranda of the outbuilding. His legs crumpling beneath him, Noel collapsed. Later, he was brought down off the balcony, breathing hard and dying. There are conflicting accounts that he died of either shock and loss of blood or was shot in the head.
There is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.
Milan Kundera (b. 1929), Czech author, critic. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, pt. 1, ch. 15 (1984).
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