I met Cyril Belgrave in the late 1970s. I, a budding trade union leader, attending the conference of the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) as a delegate of the Guyana Bauxite Supervisors Union (BGSU) and he, part of the Guyana Labour Union (GLU) delegation. At the time prominent leaders in the GLU were Samuel Cornelius Walker and Stanton Critchlow, no relation to Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow. This was a period where the trade unions aligned with the major political parties, through affiliation or sympathy.
Cyril was the type of person, though in the leadership of the GLU at the waterfront, who took the role of engagement not particularly on the floor but on one-on-one basis. He used retail campaigning/advocacy to discuss issues and influence support for his positions.
By 1984 it became very clear to me the politics in the GTUC had various intricacies. While together persons supported a political party their trade union ideological position may differ. For instance, in 1982 when Samuel Walker ran for re-election as President of the GTUC there was a strong view in some quarters his stewardship as president was found wanting and would have prevented him from being re-elected, given that Gordon Todd from the Clerical & Commercial Workers Union (CCWU) was nominated and the perception held that he had a greater chance of winning the presidency.
Lo and behold, it was not Walker who had to fear Todd; it was Todd who had to fear Boysie Ramkarran. Boysie accused him- the former a member of the PPP and the latter a supporter- of having links to the CIA because there was a representative of the American trade union movement at the CCWU conference. He stood on the conference floor and made public this accusation. After making the accusation, on the floor, he offered himself for the presidency. Boysie was defeated by a wide margin.
In the GTUC when ballots are cast they are immediately counted. From the results it could easily be gleaned which union supported which candidate. The results of that election showed there were many spoiled votes and while balloting is secret I do not believe Belgrave cast a ballot for Ramkarran who like him came from the PPP and were serving Members of Parliament.
I think it is opportune to address the allegation that during the Burnham administration Todd was taken on a helicopter ride and threatened to be thrown out into shark infested waters. What I repeat here is what was told to me by Gordon Todd whom I called Toddy. It was a Thursday afternoon, him and I were having a beer at the corner of Louisa Row and Durban Street, and the conversation of the helicopter issue was broached by me. Todd’s response was that the incident of a helicopter ride never occurred.
The helicopter story is one of the myths of our sociopolitical history, often recounted with an air of certainty. Only two Fridays ago I was in a conversation where I heard the name of a new pilot who took Todd on the helicopter ride. It remains my view that the story had political currency and publicly debunking it would not have served the interest of the environment at the time. I digressed.
Cyril Belgrave and I shared an intimate experience which I now make known. In the 1984 GTUC election then, Kenneth Denny who was Organising Secretary, and a minister in the Forbes Burnham government wielded significant influence in the GTUC. Some were opposed to this level of political presence and influence in the workers’ movement.
News were out that the unions affiliated to and supporting the government had identified Jean Persico as the candidate of choice for the GTUC presidency. This came as a surprise to some who knew Persico never took to the floor on any issue save for the one that year where she spoke to the motion addressing the issue of Women’s Rights. There was swift reaction to the news.
A number of unions, including the University of Guyana Workers Union (UGWU), Guyana Mines Workers Union, GBSU, Guyana Public Service Union, Amalgamated Transport & General Workers Union, Guyana Agricultural Workers Union, CCWU and National Association of Clerical Commercial and Industrial Employees banded into a group to contest the elections. The consensus candidate for the presidency was George Daniels, who was victorious. The group’s intention was also to capture two other strategic positions, that of Treasurer and Organising Secretary.
As deliberations intensified, Clive Thomas of the UGWU said that if the group is to win Denny’s position, given his influence, yours truly stood a better chance and proposed I be nominated for the position of Organising Secretary. As the campaign heated up Belgrave caught me at a passageway between the canteen and auditorium. His mission was to convince me not to contest.
I can keenly recall him saying words to the effect: You’re young, wait your turn. Denny, while he is a Minister of Government, he performs his duty as Organising Secretary and must be given a chance. He sought to influence further, telling me: Young Lewis you don’t have anything to lose, if Denny loses the job as Organising Secretary he has something to lose. A defeat for Denny can be humiliating.
I had a healthy respect for Denny’s contribution to the movement but the rules of the GTUC qualified me to contest, I felt I stood a good chance and threw my hat in the ring. I was victorious. Denny came over and shook my hand in congratulation. Mindful of Belgrave’s perception, and unsure whether same was shared by others, I embraced Denny. The group secured all three positions – President, Organising Secretary and Treasurer which was won by Nanda Gopaul.
Clearly, though Belgrave was a known PPP man, on this specific issued he sided with the GLU which supported Denny’s re-election. For him solidarity with the candidate of his union’s choice took primacy. This side of Belgrave is not much spoken of, particularly by those who seek to make him a partisan not national figure which he was.
Having read Clement Rohee’s letter (KN 15th October) paying homage to this trade unionist, who I called a brother, he could not resist taking a cheap shot, which is characteristic of him. In that letter he claimed “The GTUC had objected to Belgrave’s appointment using the spurious argument that his appointment was a ‘departure from the original understanding and spirit of the law to insulate trade union recognition from party political interference.’”
Opposition to Belgrave’s chairmanship of the Trade Union Recognition & Certification Board (TURB) was not based on “spurious argument.” It was and remains a principle, guided by ILO Convention No. 87, to insulate the trade union and employers’ business for political interference. This was a principle the PPP fought to have uphold when in the Opposition. Belgrave was a known and practicing politician when he was appointed as Chair of the TURB. His politics notwithstanding ours was a respectful relationship and whenever we crossed path we would stop and engage.
Cyril passed to the great beyond on 10th October. May his work live on and his soul rest in peace.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.)
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