Tomorrow is May Day and it is going to be greeted by further division in the labour movement. The founding fathers of the labour movement when they started it early in the 20th Century, felt that they had scored a resounding success. Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, whose action to ensure that workers got conditions of work far removed from the days of slavery, is actually credited with being the man responsible for a solidified labour movement throughout the Caribbean.
He fought for and gained numerous concessions for the stevedores in the first instance and sparked similar workers’ movements in places like Trinidad where Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler, an oilfield worker, in the 1920s, did what Critchlow did in Guyana. Workers in Jamaica and Barbados followed suit.
Other categories of workers throughout the region recognised the benefits of unison and soon in Guyana there was an umbrella labour movement, the Trades Union Council, later to become the Trades Union Congress.
In the early days when workers needed to fight for every concession they soon found that togetherness was the key. Whatever affected the sugar workers affected every worker and whatever benefits accrued from industrial action was transferred across the board.
And so it was that workers marched through the streets of the city and their villages and towns with pride. They had come of age and they were now a force to be reckoned with. No longer was labour something that one could take for granted.
It is with a measure of disgust that we now look at the labour movement in Guyana. It is in tatters and no longer considered a force. They have even failed to grab the attention of the workers because there are those workers who feel that the trades union is now a toothless poodle. In fact, there have been instances where workers take action into their own hands thus precipitating the action by the union.
The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union has repeatedly said that the workers on their own would take strike action forcing the union to do nothing else than to support them. It was the same in 1999 when the nation had its largest strike in recent memory. The workers decided to strike for better wages and the Guyana Public Service Union had no other option than to endorse the strike.
This strike spread to involve just about every category of worker and there were unions other than the GPSU that struck in solidarity with the servants. That strike lasted nearly sixty days and when it was over the manner in which the labour union accepted the agreement caused some of the striking workers to lose faith in the union.
But even before that there was the division. Some unions broke away from the umbrella organization to form their own. Briefly there was the merger of all the unions under one umbrella but it was not long before the split reappeared.
This year there is even another split. The nation’s teachers are refusing to march under the banner of the umbrella organization. So instead of two groupings there will be three with the teachers forming the third.
And this could be understood because just days ago the teachers, on their own, rather than under the auspices of the Guyana Trades Union Congress, entered into dialogue with the government and concluded these talks with a measure of success. There is therefore no need for the TUC.
But at this time when just about every worker is expressing dissatisfaction with the returns for his labour one would have expected that the labour movement would have been solidified; that there would have been a concerted effort to ensure a strong labour movement for effective action.
The unions may have themselves to blame for this situation. When the government targeted the GPSU and withheld agency fees, no other union rushed to support the public service union. When the bauxite workers became the targets for the Russian Bauxite company the other unions did not seek to lend their support to the bauxite workers.
So in Georgetown, instead of the now customary two rallies there will be three. One supposes that the only redeeming feature is that there will be one march through the streets.
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