GAWU observes 45 years as bargaining agent in sugar industry

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GAWU observes 45 years as bargaining agent in the sugar industry

Full statement from GAWU:

On February 27, 1976, the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) and the then Sugar Producers Association (SPA), the forerunner of the Guyana Sugar Corporation Inc (GuySuCo), appended the Recognition and the Avoidance and Settlement Agreement between the parties. The inking of the agreement cemented GAWU’s status as the bargaining agent on behalf of the field and factory workers in the sugar industry. It also culminated some three (3) decades of struggle for the GAWU to speak on the workers behalf.

The struggle by workers to have GAWU as their union began in 1946 with the establishment of the Guiana Industrial Workers Union (GIWU). The establishment of the GIWU arose after workers became disillusioned with the Man Power Citizens Association (MPCA) which was recognised a few years prior but had quickly lost credibility among the workforce. An early highpoint in the recognition struggle took place at Enmore where a workers protest along the East Coast of Demerara over the imposition of the cut and load system grew and saw workers, among other things, demanding the recognition of the GIWU. That struggle was supported by the leaders of the GIWU and the Political Affairs Committee (PAC). Dr Cheddi Jagan and his wife played an active role in providing leadership and other tangible support to the workers. A fever pitch was reached on June 16, 1948 when five (5) workers were shot by the colonial police at the behest of the plantocracy. Those five (5) workers who are nationally celebrated as the Enmore Martyrs inspired a new wave of struggles that ultimately led to our country’s independence.

The GIWU was a victim of the political split at the national level in the 1950s and later became defunct. The struggle nevertheless continued and the GAWU was established in the early 1960s. Another inflection point was reached when Kowsilla who was supporting a strike by the sugar workers at the Leonora Estate was crushed to death. Kowsilla and others had lent their solidarity to striking workers. The strength of the workers actions which was bolstered by solidarity from several quarters must have angered the plantocracy. This may have motivated a foreign manager to instruct a scab to drive a tractor across the factory bridge where Kowsilla and others were standing. In the melee, Kowsilla was crushed while several others were injured, some for life. Today Kowsilla is regarded as a heroine of the sugar workers.

The struggle continued and workers supportive of GAWU were, at times, harassed, intimidated and even faced incarceration. This only steeled the workers resolve and they continued to press for the GAWU’s recognition. In 1975, two strikes by workers in the first and second crops saw the then Government and plantation owners agreeing to the conduct a poll. The December 31, 1975 poll saw GAWU obtaining some 97% of the votes cast confirming that the Union enjoyed the overwhelming support of the workers in the sugar industry.

Since the inking of the Recognition Agreement, the GAWU has continued to advance the lot of the sugar workers. Several advances were recorded and a number of benefits are now enjoyed by the workers. The active work of the Union has seen workers from other sectors joining the GAWU fold and the Union speaks on behalf of workers in several important sectors at this time. The Union remains firm in its defence of workers and has sought to advance their well-being not only at the bargaining table but through advocacy of enhanced protections and adjustments to alleviate the cost-of-living. The Union also places a high premium on education and from its own funds constructed the GAWU Labour College to advance its educational work. The Union contends that an educated worker is less likely to be exploited as he/she will be knowledgeable of their rights.

In more recent years, the GAWU was at the forefront of struggle against the minimization of the sugar industry. Our principled actions earned us the ire of the then Coalition Government which sought to downsize the sugar industry without regard to the social implications. Our strong advocacy brought us several allies who also spoke up on behalf of the sugar workers while earning the then Government a permanent place in the hall of infamy. The GAWU’s continued advocacy saw the new Government, immediately upon its assumption to office, beginning a process to re-open three (3) of the four (4) estates closed by its predecessor. This is currently an ongoing process and has rekindled hope among those who were thrown on the breadline mercilessly.

As we observe 45 years of recognition, the GAWU remains proud of its work and achievements. Indeed, there is much to celebrate but, at the same time, we are aware that they are those who seek to rollback workers gains and undermine their unity. At the same time, the Union is actively seeking to expand its reach and is currently seeking to recruit more workers to its fold.