SINGAPORE - When the British military withdrew from Singapore in the mid-1970s, unionist Edwin Netto had the unenviable job of convincing white-collar workers from the British bases to take up blue-collar jobs in Jurong.
For a year, he and others tried to persuade clerical and administrative staff that they were better off picking up skills for jobs such as plumbers and electricians.
"We told them there is no point waiting for their old jobs to come back. They should learn something new. It's better than having no job," said Mr Netto, 77.
The hard work paid off. Many of the workers went for training and switched careers.
Such pioneering work was lauded by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday in his annual May Day Rally speech, as he paid tribute to unionists who defeated the pro-communists in the Singapore Association of Trade Unions.
These early unionists rallied support for the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) so that it could take a leading role in labour relations and build win-win cooperation with employers and the Government.
"They (pioneer unionists) worked with political leaders to set Singapore on the path to development, and changed the lives of workers permanently for the better," said PM Lee.
He said many of these leaders played pivotal roles in Singapore's history not just as unionists. They were also MPs and political leaders such as Mr Devan Nair, Mr Ho See Beng, Mr P. Govindasamy and Mr Mahmud Awang.
Mr Lee said he was also personally grateful to many pioneer unionists whom he fought many "battles" with.
One of these "battles", he said, was the 1985 recession when he recommended cutting Central Provident Fund rates to improve Singapore's competitiveness.
Unionists convinced workers it was necessary.
"It was a difficult and painful exercise... but they partnered the Government to revive our economy," he said.
While some of these pioneers have died, he was glad that several could attend yesterday's rally at the Devan Nair Institute for Employment and Employability.
He got four early unionists to stand up to be applauded by the 1,100 union leaders and guests who attended the rally.
They were Mr Netto of the Singapore Teachers' Union; Mr Abdul Rahman Mahbob, 74, of the Union of Power and Gas Employees; Mr Oscar Oliveiro, 79, of the Union of Telecoms Employees; and Mr Tan Soon Yam, 74, of the Food Drinks and Allied Workers Union.
The quartet said they were honoured. Said Mr Abdul Rahman: "Many workers in the early days were illiterate. But we managed to persuade them to go for training. I am touched that Singapore remembers what we have done."
But even as Mr Lee looked back at Singapore's history to honour past leaders, he also stressed the importance of renewal.
He said he was glad that NTUC has younger leaders to keep it relevant, such as its four new assistant secretaries-general Patrick Tay, Yeo Guat Kwang, Ang Hin Kee and Zainal Sapari.
"We have capable leaders to take the unions forward in a new age with new members. Please give them your full support."