The divided labour voice Editorial
Stabroek News
May 6, 2002

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As was the case last year, May Day found the labour movement as divided as ever and with seemingly different agendas. The traditional Trades Union Congress (TUC) rally at the National Park was boycotted by the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) - the largest union in the country - which staged its own rally at the NIS ground. Besides the GAWU boycott, the other sugar union NAACIE did not participate and just a few years ago the main public service union, the GPSU held its own gathering when its relations with the TUC were going through a rocky phase.

It was unfortunate that President Jagdeo declined the invitation to participate in the TUC rally. No matter how fractious the relations between the government and the TUC, May Day provided the opportunity for a respite of sorts from what has become a combative relationship particularly in recent months. It was a missed opportunity for the President to show goodwill towards the movement even if in past years government leaders have been distastefully treated by the gatherings at the National Park.

But back to the gravamen. The schism that has continued to divide the labour movement is a deep-seated one stretching back to the late 70s and early 80s and crystallising in the formation of the breakaway movement FITUG. When the FITUG unions rejoined their estranged parent body there had been high hopes that the grouses that caused the lengthy and acrimonious separation would be finally healed. The reunion flattered to deceive and in recent years the divide between some of the former FITUG unions and the TUC have resurfaced and have been accentuated and worsened by politics.

Inevitably government officials have accused the TUC of operating in tandem with the political opposition - a charge it has vehemently denied while unions like GAWU have been criticised for their close relationship with the ruling party.

The entangling of politics with the business of the union movement will not be reversed in the blink of an eye and probably not without political stability - the absence of which tends to polarise the movement even more.

Where the TUC can make a brave start in steadying the labour ship is in respect of unity. Instead of jockeying with each other on the sidelines, a united labour movement should be seriously addressing how to ensure that free trade doesn't cause traditional employers to fold, how to ensure that the skills levels of its members are constantly upgraded and that they are prepared to adapt to changing labour market requirements, how to make productivity gains and importantly how to guarantee livable working conditions for its constituents. A divided voice speaks on these various topics in Guyana.

The onus for reversing this circumstance rests mainly with the TUC. It must reach out to its affiliates and attempt to strike a deal for the sake of the workers. The grouses of GAWU and NAACIE are well known. They predated the formation of FITUG and have to do with the very essence of the movement.

As far as these two unions are concerned, the TUC is an anomaly in a democratic world. The manner in which the TUC apportions authority - the number of delegates attributed to each union at delegates' conferences - has more in common with an Afghan Loya Jirga than with the democratic tenets that the movement should dearly value. In a country of one person one vote the TUC has dispensed a different brand of representation. In a report in the Sunday Stabroek yesterday, TUC President Carvil Duncan averred that paper unions no longer exist as charged by the dissident unions. This is good to know and the best way to convince a skeptical public is to open up the movement to scrutiny from all quarters. One of the main contentions of the dissidents is that the membership of the various affiliates is a mystery even to the individual unions yet they are accorded delegates on some unspoken basis. The accountability of many unions to their members on how membership dues are disbursed is also unsatisfactory. So too are the financial practices of many of the unions. The late Gordon Todd, after the TUC/FITUG reunion, had been in the forefront of the drive for a credentials committee which would address some of these questions. Unfortunately that committee doesn't exist as envisaged.

The question of internal democracy in the TUC is one which should concern all citizens, not only union members. After all, the trade union movement is an important member of civil society and has an influential role to play.

It was heartening to hear TUC President Duncan say that a committee has been established to work towards healing the rift between the TUC and GAWU and NAACIE. Not only would a settling of differences strengthen the voice of labour it would also strengthen the role of the TUC in public life.