By Lincoln Lewis
There exist perilous fear and mistrust in the trade union community, and ignoring these could be to the workers and nation’s detriment. This government’s handling of sugar – be it right or wrong – particularly when yours truly, either in the capacity as General Secretary of the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) or private citizen, speak to this issue, I’ve come to accept condemnation and attacks will follow.
There are a set of core beliefs trade unionists are expected to hold sacred and must inform actions and decision-making on matters relating to the movement and workers’ welfare. While some may seek to impress upon society during the Forbes Burnham and Desmond Hoyte administrations their existed fear in the movement, the leadership of respective unions were able – on nearly every occasion – to safeguard the principles upon which trade unionism has been built. Ours is an institution where solidarity is expected to be a given on matters attending to workers’ rights, advancement, protection and security, irrespective of.
Notable testimonies of this are: 1) the 1977 strike in the sugar industry and, 2) the 1979 wage freeze where then-Prime Minister Forbes Burnham and GTUC General Secretary Joseph Pollydore publicly disagreed on a way forward. While Pollydore, a personal friend of Burnham, stood at the National Park and stated the labour movement does not support government’s position on not paying the agreed $14:00 per day minimum wage, Selwyn Felix, President of the PTWU, was at Cuffy Square in Linden calling on the workers to support the government’s position. The movement at that juncture was split on this issue.
At the GTUC’s 1979 Congress, the unions affiliated to, friendly with, or supportive of the PNC government, the industrial arm of the PPP (GAWU), and independent unions all came out in solidarity, expressing concerns as to what occurred in the 1977 strike and government not honouring the agreed minimum wage. What is instructive about that era is that while some leaders strongly supported or aligned themselves with political parties, they understood and respected the importance and necessity to preserve and advance solidarity in the movement.
Historically trade unions and its leaders have been affiliated to political parties. At general, regional and local elections they would mount the platforms. This practice goes back to the initiated struggle (1926) of the movement for one-man-one-vote, advancement of workers’ well-being and the pursuit of self-government, where the role of party politics is seen as pivotal.
But the right to freedom of association must not subvert workers’ common need for improvement in working conditions and standard of living, which are guided by international conventions, charters, universal declarations, constitution and laws. To this, our solidarity must remain unflinching and unwavering. No partisan interest must overrule it. As historical political adversaries have come together on common purpose(s) so too must the trade union, having set the standard, always prepared to maintain it.
The 19th May 1999 marked a significant shift in the movement, demonstrating that solidarity can be cast aside in furtherance of partisan political interest. On that ill-fated day, the State guns were turned on peaceful public servants protesting for improve wages, salaries and working conditions. This tragedy is akin to the 1948 event of the colonial police turning guns on sugar workers, which since 1976, is yearly commemorated on 16th June.
During the Bharrat Jagdeo administration, attacks were brought on the movement, unprecedented in Guyana. We witnessed the taking away of the GTUC, Women Advisory Committee and Critchlow Labour College (CLC)’s grants with the intent to silence our militancy and destroy solidarity. The administration’s attempt in 2010 to rein in GAWU with the threat of de-recognition, proved how far government was prepared to go.
GAWU for the most part was silent to the transgressions and violations the Jagdeo government inflicted on workers, perceived political adversaries, dissenters, etc. Fear stalked the land and mistrust for the other was elevated.
We are in 2018 but how much has changed for the trade union? The GTUC and CLC grants are returned, though not consistent with the principle and quantum that informed what preceded. Fear, mistrust and efforts to silent have not disappeared. Political consideration and machination can hold sway even in critical decision-making. Dealing with issues of national character impacting on workers’ well-being still begs for a common approach (solidarity).
Scars remain, and the view held there is lack of will to stand up in unison on matters of universal acceptable principles, lest one be accused of being pro/anti-government or opposition. The desire to keep out the other runs deep, is disturbing and crippling. Where strong views are held, these challenges are being faced because one side believes it has to protect and defend its government or political group to remain in office or ascend to, we cannot continue like this.
Solidarity must not become a doormat, that even though placed on upraised nails would witness amongst us persons deprived of conscience and reason, opting to hop around in pain rather than do right by the workers. Seriousness about the movement’s survival and commitment to deliver on behalf of our constituents expect from, and demand of us upholding this universal acceptable standard.
The tenets of trade unionism are sacred. Like Pollydore, we must be uncompromising on the principles, unabashedly speaking out, and challenging government, opposition and employer whenever these are threatened or deprived.
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