May 01, 2017 Features / Columnists, Freddie Kissoon

frddie2In no other country in the Caribbean, is trade unionism in such a decrepit, tattered, lifeless state as in Guyana. When one looks back at history at the two names of Burnham and Jagan, the proof is mountainous that without trade union militancy, there would never have been a Jagan and a Burnham. Jagan’s participation in, then control of the sugar union, was the main avenue he used to birth his political career.
Make no mistake, if there wasn’t a sugar union, there would never have been a Cheddi Jagan. Forbes Burnham knew that anti-colonial struggle was virtually impossible to succeed without the might of trade union militancy. Burnham penetrated the urban unions and they became the fulcrum of his political activism. It was no accident that by the time the anti-colonial struggle was over, Jagan was totally in charge of the sugar union which became his tool. And Burnham was completely in charge of the Guyana Labour Union.
Both of these men became powerful presidents and they did absolutely nothing to enhance the power and progress of the trade union movement. For them, the trade union movement was to play the same role in the post-Independence period as it did in pre-Independence time. This was to propel the agenda of politicians in power. Trade unions never recovered from the Burnham period of mass nationalization, which dented their militancy, because every strike action was action against the State.
Desmond Hoyte played no small part in further undermining the effectiveness of trade unions. Hoyte saw nothing useful in trade unions and if he had his way, he would have sidelined them. Trade unionism in Guyana never recovered from the Burnham/Hoyte era. Jagan, when he became President, saw them in no different light, especially urban unions, which he believed would always be loyal to the PNC. It was under Jagdeo that the final nail in the coffin was driven.
In Guyana in 2017, there isn’t one, not one figure in the hierarchy of the PNC and AFC that one can say have at least a modicum of intent of providing an enabling environment for trade unions. If you do a deep analysis of each powerful person in government, none of them have any particular political interest in a viable trade union movement. The man at the top is the president and with due respect to Mr. Granger, he comes across to me to be a leader that accepts the model of neo-liberal economics and he does not see a trade union movement as part of Guyana’s future.
This leaves only two persons in government – Moses Nagamootoo and Clive Thomas. Unfortunately I think their time is taken elsewhere. I also believe they have become victims of the anti-humanity and cruel winds that have blown away the collective psyche of this nation. I don’t know if Messrs Granger and Nagamootoo are going to contest the 2020 elections. If they do, I don’t see any active movement from them on the facilitation of state power to empower trade unions. If they will not be politically active after 2020, then I don’t see who we have in political society that will be sympathetic to trade union activism.
The simple fact is that after Independence, the world of trade unionism collapsed. The exception was GAWU, but GAWU was and is a shameless servant in the employ of the PPP to further the PPP’s agenda now and forever. One of the most indecent, repugnant caricatures this country has produced is the sugar union, GAWU. It defies the mind to understand how that militant group of workers we admire – the sugar workers – could have tolerated GAWU’s sell out mentality and still does.
The original sugar union was a company union in Bookers British Guiana, known at that time as the Manpower Citizens’ Association. When Cheddi Jagan formed a rival which is now GAWU, it performed the same purpose of being more of a political servant than a trade union. The sugar workers want the industry to be saved. We must ask them if they are satisfied to continue with GAWU and the PPP as their masters if and when the industry is resuscitated.
As the workers celebrate May Day today, they will be witnessing a farce called FITUG. This is a federation of trade unions whose purpose was to give support to Bharrat Jagdeo. Komal Chand of GAWU has gone past thirty years in office and Patrick Yarde wants to rule the Public Service Union until he, Yarde, leaves the world. What a sad state of affairs.