Jun 30, 2013 News Comments Off on Passionate trade unionist, Ram Mangru, is a ‘Special Person’
“I served fearlessly and I was very vocal on issues that affected my fellow workers. I did not compromise for one moment what rights a worker should get. I stood up for what I believed was right and that’s how I built a reputation within the trade union movement.”
By Leon Suseran
It was veteran trade unionist, Mr. Norman Semple, who, while visiting the Port Mourant Hospital several decades ago, noticed an ordinary, young porter and saw what no one else saw—a talented, promising, trade unionist in the making. From that day, Semple nurtured Ram Mangru and shaped him into the vocal, outspoken and dedicated representative of public servants in Guyana — Berbice more particularly.
Today, Mangru is the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU)’s senior representative for Regions 5 and 6 and to date, he has given more than 37 years to the trade union movement in this country.
Mangru has been a fearless voice throughout his career, regardless of the government of the day. He played an important role in mobilizing workers during the 60-day strike in Berbice in 1999.
He was born at Bound Yard, Port Mourant, on February 9, 1949 to Plantation Immigrants, Mangru and Bhudnie. Bound Yard, as the name states, was a slum area with logies where East Indian immigrants and labourers were essentially “bound to live the rest of their lives”.
Mangru reflected on life in those simple days, where the toilets were built over trenches.
“Life in Bound Yard was quiet, and people used to live in logies and estate shacks…The place was not properly developed.”
Living conditions were deplorable; as a result, the residents were forced to move to Tain Settlement not too far away. This was mandated by the sanitary inspectors who deplored the surroundings of Bound Yard.
Ram Mangru attended Tain Primary School after which he attended Corentyne Comprehensive High and attained 3 subjects at the GCE ‘O’ Level in 1968. Due to the tough times and not being able to acquire jobs, young Ram then joined the Johns/Port Mourant Neighbourhood Democratic Council (NDC) as a Clerk (earning $70 per month), and spent two years there. He then started to work at the Port Mourant Hospital as a porter, where his pay more than doubled ($160 per month). It was there where his trade union skills were recognized and he was asked to build and nurture these skills.
He recalled a visit to the hospital one day to attend a union meeting in 1976 by then President of the union, Mr. Norman Semple.
“He spotted me as being a talented person so he advised his other colleagues to expose me to training.”
Mangru said that Semple told him that he could make a great contribution to the trade union. He was then exposed to a plethora of training initiatives in the areas of shop steward, rank and file, and Branch Officer.
“I was trained in various leadership seminars from time to time and while I was in the movement then at the hospital. I became a member of the People’s National Congress (PNC) and continued with my trade union activities, being very active at the branch levels.
Mr. Semple was a mentor to me and he actually put me into the limelight. He has done a great favour to me and spotted me with the talent.”
Mangru added that the “talent” included speaking out for workers’ rights, “…and you speak out for the wrong things you see happening, because in those days, in the ‘70s, things were not as good as we would have liked them to be, and being in that calibre, he (Semple) recognized it.”
Mangru received training at the old GPSU office in Berbice where he participated in seminars. He also attended Georgetown training in Industrial Relations, etc., from 1975 onwards.
“So it was a continuous thing—year after year—because the union in those days used to be spending more money on educating its members and as long as they recognized you had the potential to make contributions, and they spotted you, they exposed you to more training.”
Mangru grew in popularity among his peers in the trade union through the years. He also recounted fondly that current President of the Guyana Public Service Union, Mr. Patrick Yarde, too, recognized his abilities and “he exposed me to more training.”
“In 1993, during the GPSU Elections for the Executive Council, I took his advice and ran in the elections on the slate and was elected Committee Member and I served in the Executive Council from then to the present.”
“I served fearlessly and I was very vocal on issues that affected my fellow workers. I did not compromise for one moment what rights a worker should get. I stood up for what I believed was right and that’s how I built a reputation within the trade union movement.
Being in the Executive, I was able to be in a more leadership position to lead workers in the forefront.”
He then talked about his role in leading dozens of workers in Berbice in 1999 during the 60-day strike. The GPSU had made a demand for 50 per cent increase for workers.
President Janet Jagan was the country’s president at the time and Mangru vividly recalled the events which unfolded.
“We were taken to Georgetown to continue the struggles and I was involved in addressing workers at various points, bringing workers up-to-date with what was happening.
The government did not take us seriously, but we mobilized our workforce and worked very hard to get people to support the effort, because we knew it was a bread-and-butter issue.”
After the government recognized that the union meant serious business, then Minister of Labour, Dr. Henry Jeffrey, decided to go into arbitration. GPSU then called off the strike “and we had a strong arbitration award which gave us 31.5 per cent in 1999 and 26.5 per cent in 2000.”
It was a time when Mangru appeared frequently on the television news and other media, and he recalled it was a tough time, when he was disliked by a lot of persons for the stand he took. His wife even pleaded with him to stop appearing so often on the television and saying bold things, but he refused to give up the fight.
“In 1999, when public servants were asking for their bread-and-butter, they were given the bullet under the PPP government. When they (the PPP) were criticizing the British for using the guns against the Enmore Martyrs, they used it against us in 1999, so when we looked back at how we came through in history, it was basically repeating itself… the people who were actually advocating against it were the people who were involved in it.”
“That strike made me more prominent within the labour movement because I travelled the whole country—from Essequibo, Regions 1,2,3,4,5 to Linden and Region 6…I stand for one thing: justice for workers.”
Mangru retired in 2004 as a Senior Gateman at the Port Mourant Hospital. He was then asked by Patrick Yarde to take up the Position of Industrial Relations Officer (IRO) that same year at the Berbice GSPU office.
Today, as an IRO, Mangru sits and listens to numerous grievances of workers, such as their being harassed by management, cutting of salaries, leave matters, etc.
“From time to time, I have to meet and negotiate with management to amicably resolve these problems…and sometimes I find favour with management.”
Mangru is very concerned that many employers today do not seem to be trained or trained properly in Industrial Relations, “so when they came in the job, they used the ‘big-stick method’ to deal with workers—and this work is governed by rules of the civil service.”
“I recognized with management that they do not have the necessary skills to deal with industrial relations and from time to time I speak with the Regional Administration to have training courses in that area, so they can be able to deal with workers from an industrial point of view.”
Over the years, Mangru has been speaking about wages and salaries. He recalled during the 1970s, when the then administration had signed a Minimum Wage Agreement.
“President Forbes Burnham had signed a 3-year minimum wage giving $14 in the final year and he breached that agreement and I was very vocal about that and at the GPSU level. I was vocal that the government should honour the agreement and said that was not right.”
“When we stand for workers’ rights, we feel that workers must be treated justly, just like anybody else.”
He stated that in Guyana today, few people hold the bulk of the money and “the majority of the people cannot get the crumbs from the masters’ tables, because people are not being treated like workers—we are being given the pittance in salaries—5 per cent.”Our ‘Special Person’ believes that the government today is not treating workers properly. This was the focus of his May Day 2013 address on the lawns of State House in Berbice.
“No matter which government is in power, I will continue to speak out.”
He noted that the GPSU carried out a survey in Guyana recently and concluded that a family of two should not work for less than $75,000 per month “…but you’re giving a worker $40,000 as minimum wage in the public service—with everything going up—but nobody recognizes it!”
Mangru praised the current GPSU President and spoke briefly about the longstanding union which is celebrating 90 years of existence this year; “to keep an organization going vibrantly for 90 years is wonderful. It has taken a great lot out of Patrick Yarde, during his tenure and before, to keep this union united together.”
“When the government suspended their ‘check-off’ they paralyzed us financially, because they felt that our demands were too great and so, to put pressure to us, they suspended our check-offs.”
The check-offs to which he referred are the authorizations that members give to the union for deductions to be made on a monthly basis. Mangru related that this act by the government in the 1990s resulted in the union losing several thousands of its members.
“We had to take the matter to the court and the judge gave a ruling that we had to go and recruit all our members back and have them fill out forms an sign the authorizations, but the Agency Shop Agreement, they did not give us.”
He felt that that act was one intended to “cripple the union because they felt that the union was not in support of them.
“The GPSU had the long and arduous task, too, of re-registering all of its members. It could not get back all of its members to register and the membership dropped from around 14,000 to about 7,000 after the process was completed, because not everyone was willing to sign an authorization again. Today, the GSPU membership is about 9,000.”
On a lighter side, the trade unionist does find time to appreciate the calmer aspects of life. Some of his hobbies include reading, playing dominoes and keeping up-to-date with current affairs.
“I read a lot and keep myself abreast with what’s happening in and around me.” He is also actively involved in his kitchen garden at home. He is happily married to his sweetheart Radica, and the couple enjoy the company of their children: Roxy, Diane, Dionne and Sarah.
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