GAWU’s New, Militant Mode

Former Speaker of the National Assembly, Ralph Ramkarran

By Ralph Ramkarran

SugarThe 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.



  1. Emile.
    you are a PNC THUG and never comprehend Guyanese politics.
    The GAWU Labor movement was created as a result of PNC DICTATORSHIP and the Despotic Burnham Regime!

    You people don’t mind starving to support a PNC dictator!

  2. Guysuco has no such agency shop position with GAWU. My Union dues is deducted only after I give consent by signing a union dues deduction form supplied by the union and not management. You have that one wrong Ralphy.

  3. Bobby,
    You are one of many who cannot see the nexus between Jagdeo’s preference for Ramotar over Ramkarran and Nagamootoo and the reason why the once invincible PPP is now powerless. Unless you people understand what Jagdeo did you will never understand why the PPP will NEVER REGAIN POWER UNDER JAGDEO.

  4. Let the records show that during the time that Reepu Dama Persaud and others were promoting a Jagdeo third term, GAWU engaged in a series of strike actions that raised questions about the motive for the strikes, given that the union was aligned to the PPP yet was striking against a corporation run by the PPP regime. In the midst of all of this, Jagdeo went on a Middle East trip and took PPP Leader Ramotar with him.
    It was the first foreign trip in which the two ever traveled together at government expense. On their return, the Jagdeo government announced approval of GYS$4B towards GuySuCo for sugar lands to be converted to housing and another GY$4B for development of said lands. It may have appeared as a GuySuCo bail out, but in reality, it was Ramotar’s way of telling Jagdeo he cannot go for a third term without support of sugar workers, and Ramotar, as PPP Leader, had influence over GAWU and sugar workers to undermine Jagdeo.
    Ramotar would also seal his place, with Jagdeo’s blessing, as the next PPP presidential candidate. But Jagdeo, knowing his voracious appetite for political power and the financial benefits that come with it, merely allowed Ramotar to become a token President while Jagdeo called the shots and pulled the strings. Ramotar never was a political leader and had no professional experience that would land him a real job in the real world after his presidency ended, so he was willing to settle for a presidential pension as a reward for his decades as a PPP lackey. Jagdeo, on the other hand, facilitated him while looking to take full control of the PPP.
    Where does this leave GAWU? Well, the fate of GAWU is intimately tied to the fate of the PPP, and if my reading of the political tea leaves are correct, the PPP is dead, which means GAWU is dead. I do not care if all the Indians come out and vote Jagdeo and the PPP in 2020, the PPP will never regain power. And it has nothing to do with voting by numbers. The thinking is that Jagdeo must never return to the presidency, even if it means future elections are manipulated. This is why Jagdeo has to be removed from the leadership of the PPP in order for an above board electoral outcome.

  5. Ralphie is just sick to the bone that he wasn’t selected to be the PPP/C Presidential Candidate .Every commentary made by this man must include something about the selection of Donald Ramotar as the PPP Presidential Candidate . Poor fella ! Time to move on. You can’t make yourself forever miserable about something you can’t change, Ralphie .


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