The sugar unions have brought out workers in a widespread strike in the Berbice and Demerara Estates in an effort to convince the APNU/AFC coalition government to reverse their decision on the announced closure of the Wales sugar estate. The strike weapon has been the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of trade unions in their struggle with management to improve working conditions and obtain benefits for workers.
But there are two arguments that can be raised against the appropriateness of using the strike weapon at this time. Firstly, whatever are the merits and demerits of the case to close Wales, it is conceded even by the unions that the overall financial health of the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GUYSUCO) is precarious and the corporation is technically bankrupt.
Any strike at this time, when the “first crop” is just starting out, will further add to the corporation’s flow of red ink and damage the chances of the workers being paid their Annual Production Inventive (API) which was promised for this crop.
Secondly, with the owner of GUYSUCO being the State, the unions end up ultimately striking against the Government of Guyana (GoG), which unavoidably laces the strike as being dubbed ‘political’.
That the sugar unions, especially the Guyana Agricultural Workers’ Union (GAWU), have a nexus with the Opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP), makes this political angle even more problematical. While the Government might want to sit down with the unions, they might not want to give legitimacy to the Opposition since they denied the latter’s request to debate the Wales closure in the National Assembly.
The question then is whether the unions’ strike action has damaged or furthered workers’ interest, which should always be paramount in their actions. We believe that in this instance, the unions had no choice. As the employer, the Guyana Government has acted much as the 19th century capitalists who precipitated the formation of trade unions to begin with, in not deigning to even inform the sugar unions about their draconian decision much less consulting them, as modern labour practices would suggest.
The GoG also forced the unions’ hands in their rejection of their own Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the state of GUYSUCO which did not recommend any closure. Their newly appointed Chairman of GUYSUCO, Dr Clive Thomas was a member of the COI and just as pertinently the adviser on “sustainable development” to President David Granger. In rejecting discussion in and out of the National Assembly, the GOG has now acted like the 19th century employers who did not believe that workers should have any input into the affairs of their workplace but are merely selling their labour p.
At this stage, we therefore urge the political Opposition PPP, to avoid taking over the strike action so that the latter one is not delegitimised as “political” by the Government of Guyana . We saw this latter factor playing out in the reluctance of union members that are part of APNU’s traditional political support base staying away from the latest “protest actions” at Wales.
Wales presents the opportunity for workers to protect their most basic right – the right to employment – using their traditional weapon and to disjuncture it from “politics”.
In this way, the rising tide of support within Civil Society for the government to rethink their decision on Wales, can also be harnessed since the former are also very skittish about being seen as taking “political sides”