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Oscar Pereira (1926-2001): An Appreciation

Meryl Fernando

OSCAR PEREIRA died of a heart attack on 6 June 2001 at the Brohier Memorial Home, Wellawatte. Oscar was a bachelor and was of a cheerful disposition. His room-mate told me after his death that Oscar had angina but he did not care to take medical treatment. He suffered from breathing spasms and when advised to see a doctor, he would shrug off such pleas. He was also a diabetic.

Oscar was born into a Roman Catholic family and spent his childhood in Grandpass in cosmopolitan commercial Colombo. He was educated at St Joseph’s School, Grandpass, and finished his secondary education at St Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya. After passing the London Matriculation examination which was the gateway at the time to the university, the general clerical service of the government and allied employment, he joined the Royal Ceylon Navy as a communications officer in 1943 at the early age of 17. After the war ended in 1945 his employment was terminated and he joined the Grindlays Bank as a clerk about 1946. He played soccer for the bank and is reported to have been a “class player”.

In the 1940s, bank employees were organised in the Ceylon Bank Employees’ Union (CBEU), started by the reformist labour leader, A.E. Goonesinha. The 1920s had been a period of militant trade union struggle under the leadership of Goonesinha, who was the secretary of the Ceylon Labour Union. The violent tramway strike and riot of 1929, during which the workers set fire to the Maradana police station and police firing led to five deaths, was the culmination of this period of militant struggle. However, with the formation of the Employers’ Federation to collaborate with the trade unions and Goonesinha signing a collective agreement in 1929, he adopted a conciliatory attitude towards the Employers’ Federation. This was a turning point in his life. Subsequently, in 1947, he became minister without portfolio in the cabinet of D.S. Senanayake, the leader of the United National Party (UNP), the party of the bourgeoisie and the landed proprietors.

In the early forties Goonesinha had relinquished the post of president of the CBEU, and in the latter half of the forties Wijemanne, a collaborator of Goonesinha, was the president of the union. At an annual general meeting of the CBEU in the early fifties Oscar moved a resolution which called for the office-bearers of the union to be elected from among the membership. The resolution was passed and the members took control of the union. Oscar was engaged in union work, but did not take an active interest in left wing politics until he came under the influence of Prins Rajasuriya and Desmond Wickremasuriya. After the breakaway in 1964 of those elements who opposed the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) going into coalition with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and the formation of the LSSP(Revolutionary), he joined the LSSP(R).

In 1970 the SLFP together with the LSSP and the Communist Party won the parliamentary election and took government office as a “United Front”. The CBEU was getting ready to launch trade union action to win their demands. The president of the union, W.E.V. de Mel, was a member of the LSSP. He and the executive committee resigned in 1971 and Oscar was elected president with a new executive committee. In 1972 they launched a strike to win their demands. There were then two state-owned commercial banks and nine foreign banks. The strikers fought resolutely in the strike which went on for 108 days.

N.M. Perera, the LSSP leader, was the Minister of Finance and the banks came under his purview. The government was determined not to give in and N.M. Perera particularly was determined to crush the strike. The chairman of the State Mortgage & Savings Bank, N.S. Perera, a former Surveyor General, was N.M. Perera’s brother. All 72 strikers, the entire work force of this institution, were dismissed.

The resignation of de Mel as president in 1971 and the election of Oscar as president and a new executive committee show that when a working class party like the LSSP goes into coalition with a capitalist party the class struggle can be properly conducted only under an anti-coalition, anti-capitalist leadership. Also that the leaders of the working class party in government office become traitors to the cause which they earlier espoused.

Oscar continued as president of the CBEU until 1976 and as a member of the union until he retired in 1986. Even in his retirement he would gladly help trade unionists and workers with their problems. During the last years, up to the last day of his life, he regularly went to the CBEU office when office-bearers and members of the union wanted his advice. He was dismayed at the trend of sections of public and private sector unions towards supporting one or other of the two main capitalist parties. Some union leaderships were beginning to enjoy the patronage of these parties. He also regretted the control of trade unions being exercised by employees in the higher echelons. He steadfastly stood for the independence of the working class and took a firm stand against privatisation of state institutions.

Being disenchanted with the leadership of the LSSP(R) for its passivity in relation to the CBEU’s historic strike, he left the party. Politically to the last he had faith in socialism and was a Trotskyist, although he did not belong to any organisation. In the 1980s he was for a short period treasurer of the Movement for Inter Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) in Sri Lanka. Prins Rajasuriya was the secretary during this time. Oscar figured along with several others in a civil rights suit against the UNP government when it sealed the Saturday Review press in Jaffna for its campaign on human rights. In the nineties he associated closely with myself and a few comrades who were interested in propaganda work. He had contacts among the editors of Revolutionary History in London, and helped the editorial board to obtain material from Sri Lanka to publish Blows Against The Empire: Trotskyism in Ceylon – The LSSP 1935-1964.

Several surviving bank mates who stood by him at the 1972 strike and old colleagues of fraternal trade unions were present at the funeral on 8 June. CBEU representatives also attended with the union banner. Orations were delivered by M. Shah, president of the union, and Meryl Fernando. In accordance with Oscar’s wishes his body was handed over to the University Medical Faculty, Colombo.