By Ralph Ramkarran
The recent three-day general strike in the sugar industry, called by the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU), protesting the delay by the Guyana Sugar Corporation (Guysuco) in initiating wage talks, signals a return to militancy of Guyana’s largest and most influential trade union. GAWU’s history of militancy dates from the 1940s when, under anther name, it came under the influence of militants who later became leaders of the PPP. GAWU’s grueling, thirty-year struggle, for recognition, which followed an epic strike in two parts in 1977, defined it as a leader and symbol of working class struggle for justice, independence and democracy.
This militancy declined dramatically from 1992 onwards when the PPP/C was first elected to office. During the first half of PPP administrations, GAWU’s demands on behalf of sugar workers were treated with sympathy, even though the union may not have secured all that it asked for. The future of the industry and benefits for workers looked promising. The union’s militancy declined.
While there were objective factors for a decline in officially called strikes for the reasons outlined above, GAWU always was and is still today, a PPP aligned union. The union’s past leaders were leaders of the PPP. The current president, Komal Chand, is a long- standing member of the PPP’s Central Committee and Executive. But even though the PPP and GAWU share this integral relationship, GAWU operates completely independently and undertakes industrial action when it deems it necessary in its own independent judgment, though always cognizant of political realities. For example, while the PPP was in opposition from 1964 to 1992, GAWU understood the need for militant action in support of political objectives.
The relationship between GAWU and the PPP has evolved over time. During the 1970s when GAWU was fighting for recognition and the PPP, along with other opposition political forces, were fighting for democracy and free and fair elections, GAWU’s militancy in the industrial arena closely mirrored the political struggle. During this period GAWU joined with other unions, including in the bauxite industry, to give industrial muscle to the political struggle. These activities played a critical role in developing a mass struggle leading to national resistance from the late 1970s up to the reforms of 1992.
As stated above, after the restoration of free and fair elections, GAWU no longer had a political role and concentrated in uplifting the living standards of its members, particularly sugar workers. There were no official strikes. The pro-PPP Guysuco directorship, although engaged in hard bargaining with GAWU, eventually resolved differences. Relations between the PPP and GAWU remained close during the governments of Cheddi Jagan and Janet Jagan. Cheddi Jagan had been the honorary president of GAWU for many years.
The slow but unmistakable deterioration in relations between the PPP and GAWU began to take shape during the latter period of the first Jagdeo administration. The personal leadership techniques of Mr. Jagdeo, together with the beginning signs of production and other problems in the industry, which the union was persistent in highlighting both privately and publicly to no avail, and other factors which cannot be recounted here, led to leadership differences between the PPP and GAWU. Industry woes and growing leadership tension led to increased militancy. It so exasperated the government that it threatened to de-recognize the union. The PPP and GAWU were aghast at this threat. A PPP government was seeking to undo what a PNC government was forced to do after much struggle and suffering from colonial times? It reminded sugar workers of the worst days of colonialism. With sugar production in dramatic decline and GAWU and sugar workers disaffected, the AFC’s reaped the political benefits in the 2011 and 2015 elections.
But a distinction has to be drawn between the political and industrial. Political differences between the leadership of the PPP and GAWU have never excited the passion that industrial differences led to. Boysie Ramkarran, leader of GAWU in the critical 1970s and 1980s, had no political problem with the PPP, but walked away prematurely from both the PPP and GAWU in 1985 after an influential section the PPP insisted, against his strong opposition, on the prolongation of the Lysons strike in the early 1980s, resulting in the closure of the facility and the loss of the jobs of 900 women. Komal Chand, the president of GAWU, was a strong supporter of Bharrat Jagdeo’s selection of Donald Ramotar as the PPP’s presidential candidate. Komal Chand may disagree with Bharrat Jagdeo’s leadership style and may not have supported him for the position of Leader of the Opposition, but he has no fundamental quarrel with Jagdeo’s political analysis, strategy and objective.
A three-day strike by GAWU, just as Guysuco is poised to meet its target for the first time after many years, for a reason that can be generously described as insubstantial – a plea for patience by Guysuco until it considers the report of the commission of inquiry – must lead the government to the conclusion that it was motivated by political considerations.
GAWU needs to reflect on the fact that its own government sought to curb the militancy and general fortunes of the Guyana Public Service Union which, some would say, suffered dramatic declines when it terminated the agency shop agreement. GAWU has such an agreement with Guysuco.