Labour: A historic moment too long delayed

In a sense the election by the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) earlier this month of its first female president underlines the state of flux in which the movement finds itself. In another sense, it could provide the impetus which the movement so desperately needs to clamber out of the quagmire in which it appears stuck fast.

The election of a woman to the presidency of the GTUC is richly merited. It is a tribute to the efforts of women like Vivienne Surrey, Jean Persico, Jean Smith, Marilyn Griffith, Dana Gariba and, many others who served their own unions and the movement as a whole with energy and zeal but never made it to the presidency of the GTUC.

Its historical import apart, the occasion of the election of the labour movement’s first female president brings to an end what had become the practice of electing women to sinecure positions within the movement that carried no real authority and were designed for little more than to create a false sense of gender equality.

This, perhaps, is an appropriate juncture at which to reflect on the male domination of the leadership of the GTUC and to assess the implications of what now appears to be an important shift from a practice that has robbed the movement of highly valuable skills.

Any outsider who has witnessed the process by which the GTUC elects its leaders would have been struck by the frenetic lobbying, intense same-day “bargaining,” vigorous “horse trading,” and sudden and inexplicable switching of loyalties that characterizes the process. Indeed, it sometimes seemed that conferences of the movement have paid less attention to their substantive agendas and focused all of their energy and enthusiasm on the elections themselves. Conferences that have been marked by restraint and even indifference have transformed themselves into occasions of animated liveliness at election time.

At every election that I have witnessed it always seemed axiomatic that a male trade unionist would be elected president. It may well be that women may have been considered or have “come close” in the past. I cannot, however, recall an occasion up until now on which a woman was a “front runner” for the presidency. In an era where the competence of women to hold high office is not even remotely in question, the election-time activity in the Joseph Pollydore Auditorium of the Critchlow Labour College has resembled a mind-boggling exercise in male chauvinism that belongs in a much earlier era. The almost total exclusion of women from real positions of leadership up until now is one of those remarkable phenomenon about the labour movement that has inexplicably escaped a great deal of public comment.

Apart from those female stalwarts whom I mentioned earlier, a generation of younger, qualified and highly capable women like Susan Moore, Sandra Franklin, Chandrawattie Persaud and Gillian Butts have either been involved with the movement (all of the four mentioned have served in one capacity or another with the Guyana Public Service Union) but would have been unlikely to be even considered for the presidency of the GTUC despite the fact that each of these women are at least as competent as any male who has held the presidency over the past twenty years.

In essence, the occupancy of the office of President of the GTUC had been reduced to a “turn-taking” ritual that seemed to me not to take into even the remotest consideration of either gender equality or merit. I have witnessed candidatures for the presidency of the GTUC the sole criteria for which appeared to be that the candidate had never held the presidency before.

What also occurred to me during these proceedings was the apparent understanding that female trade unionists were simply expected to “queue up” in support of their male counterparts without giving even the slightest consideration to their own eligibility, however long and faithfully they had served the movement. Of course, up to that time and even now, relatively few women – perhaps no more than a dozen – have held the position of president or general secretary within their own unions.

The elections “confrontations” that have characterized those conferences that I have attended reflect the preoccupation of some male trade unionists with high office. This observation is neither a comment on their capability or their commitment. It always seemed to me, however, that many of those male trade union leaders who so earnestly sought high office were mindful of the attendant high profile and of the opportunity that the presidency afforded to become key players not only at the level of the trade union movement but also at the level of the wider society.

And now the GTUC has its first female president. The questions that arise are whether the election of a woman to the presidency marks a shift in the balance of “gender influence” within the movement or whether male trade unionists have simply conceded the competence of their female counterparts to hold the presidency.

I do not believe that the truth lies in either of those assertions. First, it marks a general changing of the guard, a long-overdue and gradual shift to a new generation of trade union leaders that will accelerate in the years immediately ahead and which will usher in younger leaders and more women.

Secondly, those older male trade unionists who have “been there before” – so to speak – are altogether aware that the presidency of the movement has lost much of what they have considered to be its appeal with the decline of the GTUC as a national institution.

Thirdly, I believe that the election of woman to the presidency is simply a matter of merit. It represents a long-overdue concession that while some women have “stayed the course” the GTUC has been unable to attract many competent men to the movement in more than two decades.

Worse, there has actually been a steady loss of interest in trade unions within the work force, a circumstance that has been due, in large measure, to an absence of vision; a paucity of capable leadership; failure to organize effectively at the workplace level; a succession of internal squabbles and rivalries that have reduced the movement to adversarial factions and the inability of the movement to fashion an agenda that is even remotely responsive to the concerns of workers.

The decline, loss of status and descent into acrimony and divisiveness has occurred under the watch of the movement’s male leaders.

That apart, the past year or so has seen the disappearance from active duty on the local trade union scene of several male trade union leaders including Seelo Baichan and Tekchand (death), Roy Hughes (ill health) and Lincoln Lewis, who, though still General Secretary of the GTUC is currently serving as acting General Secretary of the Caribbean Congress of Labour.

In effect, the trade union movement has suffered such a considerable loss of popular appeal and national status that it has impacted on the appetite of male trade unions to hold positions of authority – like the presidency of the GTUC – which, these days, are not attended by the authority or national recognition that male trade unionists have tended to embrace.

Ironically, the election of a woman to the presidency, apart from bringing an end to the perpetual squabble for office among male trade unionists, also opens the way for the rekindling of female interest in the movement and for the resurgence of the movement itself. What, in effect has happened, is that the GTUC has turned to female leadership in its “darkest hour” – so to speak.

The challenge is enormous. The new president assumes office at a time when the movement is enveloped in a multi-faceted crisis that includes a non-existent financial base, low popular appeal, serious divisions in its ranks, weak affiliates and a seeming absence of any real plan to take itself forward.

There are internal challenges too. The trade union movement has long embraced an antiquated chauvinism that is driven by the altogether unsubst
antiated notion that being a trade unionist is really “men’s work” and that women are best suited to supporting roles. That will not change automatically with the assumption to office of a new president. The incumbent could well find herself struggling to assert the authority of her office in the face of the defiance of the remnants of an “old guard” that may regard her election as a concession to tokenism or a feigned gender equality designed in part to salvage the image of a GTUC that is desperately seeking to reinvent itself.

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