Divided and dying labour movement
Kaieteur News
April 30, 2007

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May Week began yesterday but for all the talk about a unified labour movement, the opposite is far from the truth. There will continue to be two separate May Day rallies in the city and wherever these rallies are held once there is union representation in that part of the country.

When Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow started what was to become the first labour movement in this part of the world, it was felt that workers all over were in the same boat and needed the best possible representation.

Those days were no different from today. The employer wanted the most from the worker but was prepared to pay as little as possible. Therefore people worked very long hours in risky conditions without the hope of compensation in the event of an injury.

The people who endured the harshest conditions were the stevedores and the sugar workers. The stevedores were seen as the most crucial since they were responsible for moving the imports from the ships. People felt that without the imported pickle barrels and other foods they would not have survived.

Of course there was always a steady pool of waterfront workers so that the employers need not worry too much about a particular employee being an asset. If any waterfront worker dared to fool around he was simply sent packing and there were so many others to replace him.

Critchlow, himself a waterfront worker, detested the abuse and before long established the first trade union in the Caribbean —some say in the western hemisphere. Other trade unions followed and it became necessary for a trade union umbrella organisation. That organisation became the Trades Union Council and for decades it represented every worker.

So dominant was it that the powers that be introduced laws permitting collective bargaining. It meant that regardless of which union was the representing agency, the TUC was the body to bargain for the workers. It could be readily understood why the organisation became the Trades Union Congress.

Politics played an important role in the labour movement. Political leaders headed labour organizations, not only in Guyana but throughout the Caribbean . Forbes Burnham, Dr Cheddi Jagan, Norman Manley, Alexander Bustamante, and Basdeo Panday all came to prominence after their role in the labour movement.

They were to continue their hold on the labour movement even after they had become national leaders so it was no surprise that many, if not all, of the trade unions had a political affiliation of one sort or another. It is this political involvement that has led to a split in the labour movement of Guyana .

Each union has equal voting rights on the Trades Union Congress and it must have been for good reason that this was the case. However, over time this was questioned. The larger unions felt that they should have a greater voting right. The largest union is the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers' Union which is affiliated to the ruling People's Progressive Party. Its General Secretary was once the legendary Dr Cheddi Jagan.

However, despite the best efforts of its leaders, none ever became President of the Trades Union Congress and this must have rankled the union membership. There were other trade unions who could not find favour with what they considered the political direction of the Trades Union Congress. The result is the split. We now have two umbrella organisations for the trade unions. This has been so for nearly two decades and despite many efforts, these unions continue to remain outside the fold.

But that is not all; there are employers who would prefer that their workers are not unionised. This in itself represents a problem that is not dissimilar to the days when Critchlow sought to mobilise the waterfront workers.

Today, the economic condition is forcing people to hold on to their jobs at all cost and if being a member of a trade union would lead to a sacking, then the union would have to take the backburner position.

Tomorrow, as the traditional May Day parade takes to the streets, we will see a drastically reduced crowd when compared to the previous years. The diminishing crowds at previous rallies did not escape notice.

So this year we are not only saddled with a divided labour movement but a dying one as well.