Honest assessment of the struggles of this nation for social justice will note, acknowledge, honour and respect the contributions of the working class as the forerunner and forbearer. It was always those who toiled, those who were exploited, marginalised, discriminated against that have waged the battle for betterment, benefitting even the enablers and those who turned a blind eye to injustices.
Social Justice has to do with the distribution of wealth, opportunities and privilege in society. For the International Labour Organisation (ILO) it means, “the representatives of governments, employers’ and workers’ organisations …emphasis[ing] the key role of our tripartite Organisation in helping to achieve progress and social justice in the context of globalisation.”
This year marks the centennial anniversary since the passage of the British Guiana Trade Union Ordinance which recognise trade unions as legal entities, and the formation of the ILO. The working class has a proud history. A proud record of achievement, but one that is associated with constant challenges and continuous struggle. Complacency in the presence of challenges to workers’ well-being is not an admirable disposition of the trade union movement. Our history bears this out.
One hundred and fourteen years ago, in 1905, a young 21-year-old waterfront worker by the name of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow began organising workers to rally together and change the conditions of their work and social environment. Fourteen years later, at the age of 35, he saw the fruition of the trade union being recognised as a legal entity. The trade union was the forerunner mass-based organisation in society; it came before the political parties were birthed.
Critchlow was a blue-collar worker, who attained the classroom education level of Fourth Standard, today referred to as Grade Six. That he was neither white collar nor attained high school or higher education, came from a humble background, but was able to set the trajectory of this nation on a progressive path, says much as to what manner of man he was. It also says to us that brilliance, ability and foresight are not the domain of any group, profession, the lettered or unlettered.
There is no Guyanese today holding high office that does not owe such elevation to the workers’ struggle for equality. No Guyanese today owning business, is an employer or manager, can say his or her achievement has not come without the struggle of the working class.
Almost all of this nation’s people are from the groups once considered inferior to the European, were treated lesser than and had to fight for their respect and dignity. The struggle to dismantle perceptions and treatment of inferiority was valiantly and un-apologetically waged by the workers.
It was organised labour that set in train the struggle for one man one vote (universal adult suffrage) and internal self-government (1953). This was in 1926 at a conference held in Georgetown by the Labour Leaders of the Caribbean, among whom were our own Critchlow.
Universal adult suffrage has changed the conditionality of privilege that was associated with voting. Now every eligible Guyanese citizen 18 years and above is allowed to have a say, through vote, in the government of their country.
The right to vote and the power it gives to you, the citizens, must never be underrated, for it is your most potent weapon, your most valuable action that can determine the future of this country, the leadership that you have a right to choose and the foundation that would determine your life and that of your family. History will show around the world that millions have died for this right and millions continue to.
Today many are caught up in the political power struggle and are failing to recognise the importance of the collective labour struggle that transcends political parties. Labour reminds all today that regardless of which party/government is in power we have to earn, to live, to provide for our families.
We therefore have a responsibility to hold all political parties, all regimes accountable, through our votes, our collective agitation and collective will. For though labour is not powerless it is the politicians who hold the reins of government, determine the allocation and utilisation of resources, and through whom we achieve.
Labour does not want to operate in an environment of conflict with any government, any opposition, any employer. Our vision for Guyana, birthed more than a century ago, would see better working relations between and among social partners, providing a climate for cooperation and unity of purpose which is necessary for social justice.
There must be more efforts at the national level dedicated to include rather than exclude. Consistent with the Guyana Constitution and ILO Conventions workers demand respect for inclusion. i.e. their right to be seated at the decision-making table to address matters that impact their well-being. We hold true to these tenets and will continue to struggle to realise them.
We can all contribute in various ways to make a Guyana where all can live, participate and enjoy. We continue to send a message to government and all politicians that labour does not have to operate in an environment of conflict. We remind them that they have a responsibility as the premier power in government, through policies, programmes and consultation, to create the environment for harmony not confrontation. But for this to be achieved, government has got to do right by the workers. We have got to operate in an environment of mutual respect and trust, for these are important to social justice.
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