Mar 06, 2014 News
Yesterday marked 50 years since female sugar worker, Kowsilla, was killed during a strike action at the Leonora estate, West Coast Demerara.
The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU), in its tribute to Guyana’s “own home-grown heroine”, said that Kowsilla called Alice, an active member of the Women’s Progressive Organisation (WPO), probably had no intention to become heroine or martyr.
“She merely demonstrated her freedom to protest at the virtually inhuman and exploitative nature of the then sugar baron’s greed over Guyana’s natural resource, sugar – and the wealth it generated for Britain even after slavery.”
GAWU said that Kowsilla’s defiance against the Leonora sugar estate’s management, just two years before political independence, resulted in her ultimate sacrifice.
“Her cruel death, however, was not at all in vain. Her crushed body and spilt blood fertilized the struggle for working-class justice and victory for representation of the sugar workers’ first choice.”
The Kowsilla story is now part of the nation’s sugar industry, labour-union movement and collective psyche, GAWU, the country’s largest sugar union said.
According to the union, in January 1964, hundreds of sugar workers and other aggrieved Guyanese staged a mammoth citizens march to protest the imposition of proportional representation, a then unknown electoral system upon British Guiana by the British Colonial Secretary, Duncan Sandys.
“It is reasonable and fair to assume that the managers of the various sugar estates many of them expatriate British themselves, did not take kindly to the participation of “their employees” in this political protest against the British governments’ decision.”
When the workers, except for a few, staged a strike against the actions of the Leonora Estate management who offered little work after the January 1964 protests or work at severely-reduced rates, the Estate Manager, a Roy Ryder, did everything to break the industrial action which had significantly paralysed his fields and factory operations.
“From some divide-and-rule tactics to outright intimidation and threats, he abused the striking workers but failed to break their resolve.”
GAWU said that on March 06, 1964, he ordered that a tractor driven by a scab, be used to clear a main bridge, close to the factory, on which Kowsilla and her colleagues were squatting.
“Kowsilla bravely stood her ground as the tractor approached. She was crushed to a grisly death. Fourteen other females who formed the peaceful human barricade were seriously injured with some unable to work again.”
Kowsilla’s passing provoked wide-spread dissent and led to new levels of struggle, resulting in estate management meeting directly with workers delegations.
“The majority of sugar workers then resorted to abandon the then company union – the Man Power Citizens Association (MPCA). This was the movement that made a reluctant government to recognize GAWU in 1976.”
The union is convinced that Kowsilla exemplified bravery. “Her death held high the banner of the recognition struggle, and showed the ferocity with which it was waged. The adamancy of the sugar plantocracy not to recognise GAWU was met by a stubborn workers’ struggle. Workers fought with determination and, in February, 1976, the GAWU obtained union recognition by the Sugar Producers Association (SPA). The workers won that class war.”
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