Radical Labour: Another Reflection

Alissa Trotz is editor of the In the Diaspora Column.

Over the weekend both Stabroek News and Kaieteur News ran important pieces that addressed the significance of May Day, now celebrated all over the world. In its Sunday editorial, titled Radical Labour, Kaieteur News reminded readers that May Day started in the United States in 1886 as a general strike for an eight hour work day, with immigrant workers playing leading roles. It is interesting to reflect on this geographical beginning in light of the challenges facing labour and labour organizers across North America today. This is perhaps expressed nowhere more vividly than in the state of Wisconsin, where a Republican governor has introduced policies intended to destroy the collective bargaining rights of public workers. And across the US border just last Friday, in a decision that has shocked many labour advocates and organizers, the Supreme Court of Canada denied Ontario farm workers – numbering in the tens of thousands and many of whom are temporary migrant workers from countries like Mexico, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago – the right to join unions for collective bargaining like other workers across the province. These are difficult times indeed.

(This is one of a series of weekly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora and others with an interest in issues related to Guyana and the Caribbean)

In formulating an answer to the question, what is the work to be done, both Stabroek News and Kaieteur News provocatively challenged the trade union movement in Guyana to take a long hard look at itself. The Kaieteur News, in editorials on Saturday and Sunday, made the point clearly that a key piece of the work involves thinking about divide and rule politics, and the ways in which the trade union movement has operated to restrict, and not expand, the scope of workers’ demands.

On Saturday the Stabroek News reported on a forum, titled Poverty, Development and Labour in Guyana, hosted by the University of Guyana Students for Social Change, with labour attorney Randolph Kirton, General Secretary of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union Seepaul Narine and social activist and Red Thread member Andaiye. This was an excellent initiative on the part of the student organizers, and one hopes it will continue. Notwithstanding examples from our past (like the establishment of the Sugar and Bauxite Worker’s Unity Committee in the early 1980s under the PNC dictatorship), the divisions facing the trade union movement today stand in the way of effectively addressing the difficult conditions faced by the majority of Guyanese women and men, a point made by Saturday’s Kaieteur News editorial when it talked about the likelihood of three different rallies. In this context, the role of the university should not be underestimated. Events like this can offer a space for conversations which bring people together – and young people in particular – to discuss key issues affecting people in their everyday lives, away from the politicking, the nastiness and the tribalism that have become such a feature of Guyanese life at home and in the diaspora.

Andaiye’s observation, that “widening the trade union base to include various groups of currently unorganized workers could be the key to bridging the racial and political divide pervasive in the local labour movement,” seems to me to be the kind of radical and necessary move that is required. The significance of what she is calling for becomes clear if we look at the labour unrest that swept through the English-speaking Caribbean between 1934 and 1939 during the Great Depression. The strikes, riots and demonstrations were the combined result of high unemployment and terrible living conditions, and the absence of channels through which people could air their grievances. In addition to an unrepresentative political system, trade unions were also illegal across much of the region at that time. The disturbances were therefore not just about challenging social and economic conditions. They were also anti-colonial struggles, raising key questions about representative government in the Caribbean.

The response of the British government was to announce a Commission of Inquiry, led by Lord Moyne, into the conditions in its colonies in the Caribbean. The British were famous for these Inquiries – into indentureship, into the state of the sugar industry – which have left us with a wealth of rich data, and which historians have convincingly shown were investigations that in the final instance shared an investment in the maintenance of the imperial status quo. Members of the Moyne Commission travelled across the region between 1938 and 1939, and produced a comprehensive document that was embargoed until after the war for fear that it would be used as enemy propaganda. Only its recommendations were released in 1939. It is a significant document, one that clearly identified the miserable living and working conditions facing the vast majority of peoples. Its recommendations were, not surprisingly perhaps, aimed at appeasing popular discontent while securing a transition to self-rule in the Caribbean that would protect and entrench the interests of established and newly emerging economic and political elites. And many of those recommendations would be bought into by a generation of leaders who as yesterday’s Kaieteur News editorial noted, came to power on the backs of these struggles, only to turn around and  participate in these policies of containment.

This is what makes Andaiye’s remarks at the UG symposium on labour so far-reaching, for what we have here is a challenge to think about how colonial definitions of labour have come to settle firmly in the contemporary trade union movement in the Caribbean. The Moyne Commission’s notion of responsible trade unionism was aimed at reducing worker militancy, by creating a distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. This division would be upheld, not challenged, by many spokespersons and principal organizers. Historian Melanie Newton, for example, recalls finding an interview in the archives, done in the 1970s, in which a prominent Caribbean trade unionist reflected on the labour disturbances of the late 1930s. There was little place in his recollections for the unemployed, large numbers of women among them, who he dismissively referred to as the “barefoot people,” separated from those who the labour movement recognized as having respectable and legitimate grievances. Such a comment ignores the diverse backgrounds of participants in those struggles, and the radical challenge at the time this represented to the existing order. More importantly, it refuses to recognize that without these “barefoot people” those challenges to colonial authority across the region would not have had the force that they did. It is a betrayal of those who took to the streets, who helped force a door open that in the end precious few would be allowed to pass through.

The Moyne Commission’s vision of trade unionism was also based on the idea of the male breadwinner and female housewife model. Such a model is based on the idea that the only work that matters is the work that is regular and has a price attached to it (a wage or salary), and which takes place outside of the home.  One of the consequences of accepting this definition is that today trade unions across the Caribbean have no real language or room to deal with the vast numbers of people working in the informal sector, as own-account workers, in irregular jobs, whose creativity in trying to make ends meet has found no similar imaginative response from the labour movement. In Guyana, we should also ask ourselves, how does such a definition serve to exclude hinterland regions and the kinds of work and challenges facing Amerindian communities, and what are the implications of recognizing that Guyanese trade unionism is really coastal?

Another consequence of this restricted definition of work is that it leaves no room to consider the unpaid caring work that sustains families and communities and that falls primarily to women. We call this housework but that is a misnomer because it does not just take place in the house. A survey done with thousands of Caribbean women in the 1980s found that when asked to describe work, money was not the only or even the main characteristic that was identified. Women frequently said work was something that involved time, energy, and was something that could not be avoided. Not recognizing caring work is a fundamental mistake, one that leads to the continued invisibility and devaluation of a set of practices that are the very foundation of our economy.

Fully challenging our received understandings of work and labour is an act of decolonization. As Andaiye suggested in her talk, it has the potential to create a broad-based movement that can address workers in their diverse capacities and locations. Nor is this a far-fetched or unrealistic proposition, as some readers may conclude. Take the case of Guadeloupe. Two years ago, on January 20th 2009, a political movement was launched that would take the Caribbean island and French overseas territory by storm, rippling outwards to Martinique, French Guiana and as far as Réunion in the Indian Ocean. For 44 days the country ground to a halt as a mass general strike took effect. Schools and workplaces were closed, many roads were barricaded and even cars stopped running. By the end of the strike Guadeloupean activists had secured an agreement with the French government on 165 demands that ranged from increases in the minimum wage to reduction of prices on food, housing, gasoline and other goods. In a diaspora column written at the time, anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla noted that the umbrella organization, Lyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon (Alliance Against Profiteering), represented some 48 groupings, including but not limited to trade unions. The coalition led to a broad and collectively developed political platform. People had to work together, to listen to each other (a skill Guyanese everywhere seem increasingly to be losing), to find acceptable compromises, to find a language that spoke to everyone, to come up with a set of demands that everybody could own, could feel they had a stake in. This was the basis for the strike and negotiations with the French government. This was the basis for the solidarity that Sunday’s Kaieteur News editorial called for. This successful strike – the only real success across the Caribbean in recent memory, one might add – speaks volumes to how trade unions across the region need to radically reinvent themselves, and the potential for effecting meaningful and lasting change if they do.

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