‘Trade union movement is dying’

The apparent lack of interest in the trade union movement among young people is reason for serious concern, GTUC President Gillian Burton said yesterday, noting that while the struggle continues focus must be shifted to modernizing and encouraging the participation of youths in the society.

In solidarity: A section of the gathering at the Guyana Trade Union Congress rally yesterday at the Critchlow Labour College. Seated in the front row at far left is trade unionist, Llewelyn John and also visible in the second row are PNCR-1G members Dr Van West Charles; Mervyn Williams and Ernest Elliot. Opposition leader, Robert Corbin was also present at the function. (Photo by Aubrey Crawford)

Burton said frankly that amidst the fragmentation and persistant violations against workers, the trade union movement was dying, an observation which dampened the enthusiastic atmosphere at the Guyana Trade Union Congress (GTUC) May Day rally at the Critchlow Labour College yesterday. “…The movement is dying and so we must open the doors of acceptance to our youths if we are to survive into the next generation,” Burton asserted.

But other speakers including columnist Freddie Kissoon and trade unionist Lincoln Lewis tied the demise of the movement to the general oppression in the society and political forces which they said continue to strangle trade unionism here.  Kissoon termed it “the evil of power” and called on the unions to protest, picket and demonstrate for more than workers’ rights because “more is at stake.” Lewis charged that the violations of the present regime against the working class were well noted, and he declared that the oppression would end.

Burton said yesterday that many young people within the labour force did not see the necessity of getting involved [in the movement] and according to her, questions needed to be asked as to why the lack of interest. “Are they satisfied with their salaries and conditions at work or are they so oppressed they choose to stay within the safety of their shell and not offend the powers that be,” she asked rhetorically yesterday. She said the union needed to modernize as it advanced and must keep on its agenda a strategy of how to capture the interest of young workers.

She said the time had come for union leaders to keep a sharp eye on the various sectors of development taking place in the country, saying it was the work of every trade unionist to ensure that policies were in keeping with the interest of the workers. “We must carefully scrutinise our draft documents, participate in the consultations and at all times demand that the process of tripartite social dialogue is a mandate,” she said. In this vein, she mentioned the Low Carbon Development Stra-tegy, and called for the development of a curriculum which spoke more directly to people about the benefits and impact of the strategy on the society.

The GTUC President stated among other things that the labour movement, as a member of civil society, ought to be more proactive on economic and social issues, adding the in-fighting had been counterproductive. She referred to “political game hens” saying some lap up after the politicians in exchange for favours. “Let us get to work and commence the reshaping of a new and motivating movement, a movement that will capture the interest of the youths,” she added.

Kissoon, riding on popular support among the workers gathered at the Labour College, delivered a fiery address which was punctuated by the occasional “Yes Freddie!” He said the near death of trade union rights in the country must be assessed within the nature of the political system, particularly the current situation, and he declared that noted conspiracies within recent years had turned Guyana into a “dangerous and tragic land.” According to him, the purpose of the government was to bring the society under its complete hegemony, beginning with its targeting of the trade union movement and moving on now to “a low-lying NGO community society, a sacred civil society and a quiet academic community, so quiet that they have become sheep,” among others.

He charged that the elites could not buy off the GTUC which is why the union body had been treated in such a manner. Kissoon said too the level of disrespect for unions in the country was at its highest level today, saying also that the rule of law continued to be trampled upon, adding it was “times like these we miss street demonstrations.”

Lincoln Lewis spoke after Kissoon and he contended that the situation in the country could be summed up one way if someone was looking in: “Might is right and damn the law!” He charged that fundamental rights were enshrined in the laws yet people had to grovel for them.  “We cannot talk about quality of life in this country without being taken on by the Head of State,” he said, noting that he had been arrested for speaking openly.

Lewis said political appointees were public servants who took an oath to serve the people and according to him, people needed to hold them accountable. He said billions of tax dollars were being swindled and stolen and little or nothing was being done to stop the criminality. He continued by noting the various Auditor General reports which had highlighted the situation regarding the Consolidated Fund. He praised the recent move to the court by WPA member Desmond Trotman against the state for failing to pay the Lotto money into the Consolidated Fund.

He said increasingly poverty, crime, unemployment and hopeless were suffocating the country. “Smart politics dictates the creation of a level playing field that allows opportunities to spread the wealth around, which would be to the benefit of all; instead the masses are enduring oppression…” Lewis maintained. He later declared at the end of his address that “Oppression does not last forever!”

The bauxite impasse involving RUSAL and the bauxite union was widely condemned by all the speakers; many slammed Minister of Labour Manzoor Nadir for “failing to act within the interest of workers.” Kissoon referred to it as one of the dirtiest games the government had ever played with an employer in the history of the region. The sugar industry and the Clico (Guyana) fiasco were among the issues ventilated and the speakers concluded that the past year had been brutal for workers in the country, but they urged workers to press on. The GTUC rally was held under the theme, “Towards the decent work agenda – Standing for rights and the rule of law.”

(Iana Seales)

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