I should like to thank you for your invitation to deliver opening remarks to this the Third Conference of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana. This acknowledgement from you that I may have something of interest or value to say to the trade union movement, is indeed a great honour.
Among the material I consulted when preparing my remarks, is the speech of Brother Ashton Chase to the first Conference of FITUG in 2006. It is a most enlightening document, reverberating with history. A portion of the speech traces the formation and suspension of FITUG between 1988 and 1993, and its re-establishment in 2003. This history demonstrates that FITUG’s birth and growth were inevitable outcomes of the underlying interplay of politics, workers’ struggles and trade unionism, that have characterised our history as well that of many other Caribbean countries.
The struggle of the working class and the organised activity of the trade union movement, have substantially determined the course of Guyana’s history. In this regard, while Guyana was not unique, we actually led the way with the formation by Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow of the BGLU (British Guiana Labour Union), the first in the British Empire, registered in 1922 and which influenced political developments.
The struggle for political independence of many Caribbean territories was led by political movements, either formed by trade unions, or with trade unions as their base of support, or with trade unionists as their leaders.
One of the earliest political efforts to heighten the influence of labour in British Guiana was made by the Popular Party. Building on the electoral success in 1921 of several local professional and businessmen, the Popular party successfully fielded candidates friendly to the BGLU in elections in 1926. Reacting to this success, the regressive Crown Colony constitution of 1928 was imposed. It abolished the Court of Policy, and imposed the Legislative Council with the majority of its members nominated by the Governor. The effect of this studied innovation was to deliberately destroy the growing influence of the trade union movement. The Labour Party, formed to contest the 1947 elections, was labour in name only and made little impact.
The major impact of the BGLU in political terms took place prior to 1953. Its formation led to an improvement in the lives of workers, thereby demonstrating to them, the value of militancy and solidarity. Its direct and indirect involvement in the political process, heightened political consciousness, notwithstanding the restricted franchise at that time.
Several trade unions were formed in this period, among them the TWU (Transport Workers Union). The TWU, registered in 1938, had become by the mid 1940s one of the largest and most militant of the unions operating at that time. It played a crucial role in building the early PPP and the independence movement. The Teare Strike in 1947, called to protest the suspension of two workers for trade union activity, one of whom was my father, then a member of the executive of the union and the president of its clerical section, was one of the most influential in the colonial era and succeeded in its objective of removing Colonel Teare, the authoritarian British general manager, an unheard of concession at that time.
The year before, 1946, the PAC (Political Affairs Committee) was formed, which was joined by many transport workers, including my father a few months after its formation. He became the Chairman of the Kitty Branch.
I believe the Teare Strike energised sugar workers into renewed struggle the following year, leading to the tragic loss of life at Enmore where the Martyrs sacrificed themselves, so that we could become free. We pay tribute to these martyrs, as well as to the many others, who made the maximum sacrifice for trade union and workers’ rights.
This month, we of the PPP, recognise Michael Forde and the Ballot Box Martyrs, in the struggle for democracy.
I take this opportunity also, to pay tribute to the many outstanding leaders of that time, who with great skill and daring, outmaneouvred the allegedly more sophisticated rulers, and brought to notice the deep poverty among workers and the need for political reform. One outstanding stalwart I should like to mention is Frank Van Sertima, who came from a middle class background and graduated from Queen’s College, whereupon he started work at Transport and Harbours Department. He helped to found the TWU, served as its president, and became a progressive political thinker, which was unusual in those days, especially for a person who emerged out of the white/coloured middle class. He saw clearly the link between the labour and political struggles, and recognised early that workers can never be free, while British Guiana remained a colony and retained a system and relations of production which facilitated exploitation. He inspired a substantial group of young transport workers to join the the PAC and afterwards to the PPP, the then united independence movement. He was a friend of and mentor to many, including my father.
I was born in this period of the growing linkage between the progressive trade unionism and progressive politics, and it is no doubt this history, together with the experiences and influence of my father, and my own experiences, which may have given me the lifelong interest I have had in trade unionism, politics and the welfare of the working class.
In 1974, a year after I returned from studies abroad, Cde. Cheddi Jagan sent me to “help out,” as he put it, in GAWU (the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union). The President, Harry Lall, was stationed in Berbice, and the General Secretary, Maccie Hamid, with a typist, had the sole responsibility for the head office, consisting of a single room upstairs of GIMPEX in Regent Street, Georgetown, and needed help. I thought I was going to help out with some office work, some educational seminars among workers, and offer legal advice, and guidance on representational activity. I found myself doing that and more. I had already been representing the regular dozen or so of workers from the sugar belt (many more during strikes or heightened political activity) at police stations and in courts, who were in a state of permanent harassment.
During one sugar strike, I was sent by Cheddi to negotiate with the formidable Richard Ishmael, a seasoned trade union and political campaigner, to offer GAWU’s assistance by joining the strike. A few months later, I was asked by Cheddi to be the lead spokesperson of a GAWU delegation, which included the president, and nominal leader of the delegation, Harry Lall, to negotiate with Richard Ishmael and his colleagues in the MPCA, a merger between the two unions. (Harry Lall had opposed the discussions, and Cheddi did not want him to do the talking, for fear that he would break up the meeting).
The talks nevertheless broke down at the second meeting. Richard Ishmael complained that everything that was discussed at the first meeting, was told to him by the Labour Minister, Winslow Carrington, the following day and he couldn’t negotiate under those circumstances. Harry Lall soon after left the PPP and joined the PNC.
This early experience in my political life, opened a window for me. Richard Ishmael had been seen as one of the main opponents of the PPP in the early 1960s, and was much criticised as an ally of those who had helped to remove the PPP from government in 1964. I grew up on such a diet when I left Guyana in the late 1960s to go abroad to pursue studies. To be asked to negotiate a merger between GAWU, backed by the PPP, and the MPCA, led by Richard Ishmael, opened my eyes to the overarching vision of Cheddi Jagan, his deep understanding of building alliances for a united working class and his capacity to set aside personal differences in the pursuit of his larger goals for Guyana. For Cheddi Jagan, the interests of workers surpassed every other consideration. He believed that the divisions between the two unions was having a deleterious impact on their struggle, as indeed it was, and notwithstanding the bitter hostility between the PPP and Ishmael in the recent past, he put the interests of workers ahead of personal considerations. We saw Cheddi Jagan rising above the personal before that time and we were to see it again and again.
I mention all of this to emphasize the necessity for statesmanship to heal the rift in the trade union movement. I am happy to note that FITUG, representing the majority of organised workers in Guyana, has also taken the high road, and remains open to negotiations with the TUC to resolve differences.
The labour movement formed the inspirational bedrock of the founders of the PAC and the PPP. All of the four founding members of the PAC were or had become trade unionists. Jocelyn Hubbard and Ashton Chase were active trade unionists. Cheddi Jagan and Janet Jagan had both joined trade unions and were active members. It is no surprise therefore, that the interests of labour and the working class, formed the basic agenda of the 1953 PPP Government.
The predecessor to GAWU, the Guyana Industrial Workers Union (GIWU), which was established in 1946, was formed to represent sugar workers, who had lost confidence in the officially recognised MPCA. The epic thirty year trade union struggle to secure representation of sugar workers formed the sub stratum of larger political events, which dominated critical moments in the story of post war Guyana.
The development of trade unionism in the early years, and the benefits they forced employers to concede, spawned the subversion by employers of as many unions as possible. The largest such union was the MPCA, which represented one of the single largest block of workers, of the most profitable industry, the sugar industry, owned by the sugar monopoly, Bookers. The failure of the MPCA to presure Bookers to improve the lives of sugar workers and the killing of the Enmore Martyrs in 1948, placed on the political agenda the right of workers to be represented by a union of their choice.
The GIWU was established to represent sugar workers, after the MPCA was perceived, as no longer representing the interests of its members.
At the first opportunity the PPP got, it sought to remove the scourge of company unionism by giving workers the right to have represent them a union of their choice. The Labour Relations Bill of 1953, designed to do this, was fashioned after the US National Relations Act, but deemed ‘dictatorial.’ It was one of the reasons stated for the overthrow of the PPP government in 1953.
A similar Bill was introduced by the PPP government ten years later in 1963. Its objective, like the bill of 1953, was to provide for a poll to determine whether a union had the support of workers. Like the year before, 1962, when the TUC (Trades Union Congress) called a general strike against a pro-workers’ budget. leading to arson, ethnic strife and damage to property, it called another general strike, lasting 80 days, against a bill to provide for workers being represented by a union of their choice, which has to be one of the most reactionary episodes in the history of trade unionism in the world. This strike also led to ethnic violence and destruction of property. These events, which saw the betrayal of the workers by the labour aristocracy, are the genesis of the ethnic polarisation and politicization, which we are all trying to overcome today.
It took the PPP almost 50 years to establish the legal right for workers to have a union of their choice represent them. The passage of the Trade Union Recognition Act, the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act, both in 1997, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (No. 2) in 2007, have transformed the face of guaranteed workers’rights in Guyana. The protection of basic workers’ rights is now guaranteed by law. Where there is an alleged failure to apply a particular law, as has been recently argued, there can be a recourse to the courts to compel the authorities to do so. The courts have time and again, ruled against the government, so that the failure to do so, on spurious grounds, is merely an excuse.
Gone forever are the days of captive trade unions, and trade union bodies which are forced to make their choices based on political considerations. There is nothing wrong with trade unions, trade union bodies or trade unionists, having political views and prosecuting those views. This situation exists all over the world. What also exists in a democratic environment, or should exist, is that these organisations must vigorously represent the interests of their members, first and foremost, and no allegiance of any kind, except to the welfare of their members, must prevail in charting their course. No one can say that FITUG has faltered in any way, in representing the interests of its constituent members.
It is important to recognise that Guyana’s workers are woefully under organised. Too few belong to trade unions. This is a serious deficiency and does nothing to enhance the influence and effectiveness of the trade union movement.
The world is changing and so must trade unions. The old rhetoric must give way to the new realities. Guyana needs investment of all kinds. While not compromising on workers’ rights and interests, trade unions must assist in creating an environment in Guyana, which is conducive to attracting investment and increasing productivity. I am not suggesting the issuing of a statement or two. I am suggesting, the establishment of an integrated partnership, between employer and employee, through their respective bodies, either centrally or locally, to work out and implement, in a consistent and permanent manner, active and creative measures, which would accomplish these objectives. These are wholly consistent with the protection and promotion of workers’ interests, and need not hamper trade unions in fighting for higher pay and better conditions for workers. Trade unions must be seen as an integral part of, and playing a creative role in the development process, without diluting their primary function.
In addition, FITUG needs to join the debate on the direction of economic and social policies in a meaningful way. The National Assembly, offers a major opportunity for FITUG to make its views heard in the highest forum in the land which discusses these policies, and passes laws and resolutions concerning them. The bodies through which this can be effected are the Committees on Economic Services and Social Services. But also there is no reason why FITUG should not be interested in, say, foreign affairs, and have engagements with the Committee on Foreign Relations. This is a permanent feature of the parliamentary process, and for FITUG to improve upon its influence, it needs to utilise this forum to make its views heard.
The challenges facing the economies of developed countries of Europe and North America are frightening. Debt crises and recession, are being met with slash and burn measures of reduced spending and higher taxes, resulting in more job losses and more recession. These policies have failed over and over again for decades in developing countries. Some economists are predicting that the recent G 20 Conference Declaration, agreeing that developed countries must halve their deficits by 2013, quite apart from placing the burdens of the crisis, on the backs of workers and their families, students and the disadvantaged, that they will fail to generate economic growth, as in the case of Ireland. Paul Krugman, a US Nobel Prize winning economist, has said that the US is already in a depression.
Guyana will require the full co-operation of all forces in the society, including FITUG and trade unionists, to assist in charting an agreed course, that will have to exploit our advantages, to avoid the vagaries of economic dislocation in the developed countries.
PPP/C governments since 1992 have given unprecedented emphasis to the interests of the trade union movement and the working people of Guyana. The last two administrations of President Jagdeo have, under his leadership, demonstrated a commitment to the welfare of workers, youth, women and the disadvantaged that has not been shown in any ten year period in the history of Guyana. It has shown that in economic adversity, confidence in the ability of working people is the first port of call and my experience is that workers never fail to respond willingly and wholeheartedly. We will continue, and if I have anything to do with it, I will support the continuing reliance on policies which will empower working people, the poor and disadvantaged as I have done all of my life. My commitment has not been misplaced. I have seen Guyana being liberated from colonialism, authoritarian rule and economic distress by Guyana’s indomitable working class and, by your efforts, I will see Guyana rise to greater heights.
In this regard, FITUG has a national role of tremendous importance to play as an independent partner in the building of a united country, a strong and growing economy with high paying jobs, a vibrant democracy, and a system of constantly expanding social justice for workers and the disadvantaged.
I have been asked by many people if I am coming here to say something about an impending event in relation to the future leadership of our country. It would be ungracious of me to take advantage of the platform given to me by our hosts to say anything which detracts from the important business at hand. I will merely say, to satisfy any curiosity, that the PPP will determine its candidate for president in due course and if I am the nominee I will accept with humility. In any event, I say without hesitation, that I subscribe to the agenda of FITUG and of the working people of Guyana. It is a commitment which I undertook as a young man at the beginning of my political life. It is a commitment to which I subscribe today. It is a commitment that I will fearlessly uphold if I am called upon by my Party and my country to serve as your President.
It gives me great pleasure to declare this Conference open and I wish you great success in your deliberations.
Speaker of the National Assembly,
Opening Remarks at the Third Conference of FITUG
July 13, 2010.