Which way, labour? Editorial
Guyana Chronicle
May 1, 2002

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WITH the emergence of May Day as an international holiday, workers and trade unions globally have been observing it with marches, rallies and other public demonstrations to highlight issues that affect the labour movement and to advocate and struggle for solutions to workers' problems.

The labour movement here has had a history of vibrancy and militancy in championing the cause of workers. It has also had a legacy of outstanding trade union leaders of dedication and unflinching representation for workers rights.

Guyana, and especially the labour movement, is fortunate to have been blessed with names like Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow - the father of trade unionism in Guyana and a National Hero; Joseph Pollydore, Ashton Chase, Gordon Todd, Winslow Carrington, Boysie Ramkarran, Philomena Sahoye-Shury, George Daniels and of course the late President Cheddi Jagan, among a host of others.

However, like in so many other aspects of life in Guyana, political interference in the activities of individual unions and the umbrella body the Trades Union Congress (TUC), resulted in the rupture of the labour movement, thereby reducing united and collective approaches and solidarity among trade unions in their struggle for better wages and working conditions of workers.

While the period which posed the greatest challenge for the existence of trade unions was during colonial rule, there were dark periods during post independence rule, especially from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s. During those periods demonstrating workers were met with the full force of the state's repressive apparatus, many trade union leaders were regularly jailed and harassed and the lives of some were even threatened. Among them notably was the Clerical and Commercial Workers Union (CCWU) President, the late Gordon Todd and President of the Guyana Public Service Union, George Daniels who had to flee this country for fear of his life.

During the same period too, more than 50 workers including one of its executives, Desmond Moffet of the Guyana Bauxite and Mine Workers Union (GBWU), were thrown into a prison cell and teargassed because of their militancy in representing the cause of the bauxite workers.

It should be noted too that it took more than four decades of struggle before the largest union in Guyana and the English-speaking Caribbean, the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) was recognised finally in 1976 as the union of the sugar workers choice.

As a result of continuous political interference in the TUC, the larger unions could not have representation that was reflective of the size of their membership, hence the smaller unions, some of which only existed on paper, dominated the executive leadership of the TUC, which at that seem to be concerned with providing political support to the then Government, rather than the cause of the workers. Most Guyanese workers will remember the infamous "Hydro or $14 a day" choice offered them during that period.

It was against such a background that some hope for the workers was created with the formation of the seven-member splinter group of the TUC - the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG). The group included the largest and more militant unions, among them GAWU, GPSU, NACCIE and the CCWU.

However, because of differences in strategy among the unions FITUG eventually fell apart.

Despite the return of free and fair elections and the emergence of a democratic atmosphere, old wounds in the labour movement still remain and so today once again workers are marching separate ways - GAWU and the mainstream TUC having their own marches and rallies.

This is most unfortunate when unity at all levels in Guyana is so vitally needed to move this land forward.

GAWU for quite some time has expressed its grievances with the TUC and apparently these have not been properly addressed. Whatever the differences both parties should conscientiously and without prejudice work towards a normalisation of relations.

Workers day should be truly a reflection of their struggles and aspirations because the objectives of labour movements throughout the world are basically the same and greater the unity and solidarity among them the greater achievements would be for the workers.

Perhaps, it would be wise to remember and put into effect the motto of the trade union movement: "Solidarity for ever, for the union makes us strong."

And what better day to begin than on the workers day - May Day?