Trade unionism and politics

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TRADE unionism has been an important pillar in Guyana’s evolution and in workers’ and citizens’ development. In 1905, Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow led dock workers to strike against poor working conditions, which included wages and salaries. This registered Guyana’s first mass-based action in the 20th century.

Under Critchlow’s leadership, workers mobilised and fought the merchant class, who, together with the colonial authorities, were comfortable in denying them better working conditions. The dock workers’ struggle gave credence to the fact that, collectively, workers can achieve better working conditions rather than engaging the employer individually. These workers’ commitment to solidarity among themselves in pursuit of improving their standard of living, realised the British Guiana Labour Union, which was registered in 1919 and later renamed the Guyana Labour Union.

The workers’ struggles have achieved for this nation conditions of work such as a minimum wage; an eight-hour work day; holiday with pay; overtime pay; sick leave; the Workman’s Compensation Act; labour laws; the Landlord and Tenant Act; National Insurance and Social Security; Occupational Safety and Health; free education and free health care.
At the social level, the trade unions were involved in turnkey housing development such as obtained in TucVille in Georgetown, TucBer in New Amsterdam, Wisroc in Linden, and the Kwakwani Housing Scheme in Upper Rio, Berbice. The ‘Tuc’ in the names of the two schemes means the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which spearheaded their conceptualisation and construction. The TUC also played a role in education, as is evident in the Critchlow Labour College and the Guyana Industrial Training Centre (GITC), which are brainchildren of the TUC.

On the political front, the trade union movement started the mass-based struggle for internal self-government. In this 50th year of Guyana’s independence, it need not be forgotten that, 90 years ago (1926), Caribbean labour leaders — which included Critchlow — congregated here to conceptualise and develop a strategy for self-government, which included the one-man-one-vote concept that set in train a series of events that culminated in independence in the Caribbean, starting in the 1960s.

If truth be told, nothing was ever willingly given to workers by employers; workers have always had to fight for what they received. Other employers, to be competitive, have incorporated the negotiated benefits from unionised workplaces into their conditions of employment. The trade union, from inception, has been a pressure group both at the workplace and in the wider society. While the movement negotiates better working conditions, it has extended its role to include workers’ welfare in the wider community. This is probably better understood through the work of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which was established in 1919 and has conventions impacting on the workers’ well-being both in and out of work. These conventions touch the workers’ social, economic, cultural and political lives.

No pretence is made that labour relations here have not been without their challenges, and have not at times been tumultuous; nor can it be denied that political parties, having established alliances with the labour movement and its leadership, have, from time to time, infiltrated its ranks with politicians who view the movement as a platform to further their partisan political agendas. That having been said, there remains a role for the trade union movement as a pressure group, social partner, and party in the industrial relations system.
If Guyana is to earn and maintain respect and credibility in the international arena as a member of the United Nations, the ILO, and international financial institutions whose development premises include respecting individual rights and freedoms, the trade union movement must be allowed to occupy its rightful place in our industrial relations’ system and the nation’s body politic. Arguably, the framers of the Guyana Constitution recognised this — as is evident in articles that refer to this institution — and has assigned specific roles to the trade union movement.