Fifty years after the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) came into existence it is a far cry from the vibrant force that once represented workers and played a pivotal role in decision-making in the country. Back then it had a voice like a lion’s roar, while today it can manage no more than the purr of a cat.
The GTUC is now a fractured body with some of its members breaking away and starting a rival grouping. There are many reasons for its downward slide over the years, not least of them being the political climate where it has come to be perceived as an enemy of the government.
But newly elected President of the congress, Leslie Gonsalves, says he is up to the “herculean task” and for the next three years would be working towards unifying the trade unions and talking with the government.
According to the new president the role of the GTUC has not changed over the years but rather the issue is one of “more or less adaptation” and the fact that the unions are not as connected as they should be.
“The GTUC is just an umbrella body but it is the affiliates who would have to come up on par and measure what’s happening in their respective confined space,” he told the Sunday Stabroek in a recent interview.
He admitted that some congress members attempt to deal with matters “in their confined space” but he does not view this as the unions ignoring the GTUC. In contrast, he feels that adjustments need to be made to “allow the process to go forward.”
In his acceptance speech Gonsalves had pointed out that it was the trades union movement that blazed the trail for a better society, increased incomes and improved working conditions. “Given the movement’s legacy we are obligated to continue to struggle until every child, every young person, every able-bodied worker, and every retired citizen gets what’s rightly theirs under the rule of law. None would be excluded,” he pledged in his speech.
Declaring that he was ready for battle, the new president had said that his “blood boils for justice” even as he urged they remain steadfast, and while he could not promise a smooth road he was committed to delivering his “unwavering loyalty to stand up every day in protection of the workers and this great movement.”
“The TUC is not short of vision and objectives… the implementation remains the issue,” Gonsalves said, and when asked who should be faulted for this he said the “the implementation would have serious consequences from a government standpoint.”
He told the Sunday Stabroek that the government would have to play a meaningful role in terms of what it is signing on to in the various conventions at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) level. He made mention of the over 50 workers who were dismissed from the bauxite company RUSAL almost four years ago for taking industrial action, and the fact that the government was yet to effectively represent them.
“In order not to be marginalized and cause the TUC not to be just a name what should happen is that we should respect and honour all conventions… understand the rights of every worker and the rule of law. If the law is saying x it must be x,” he said.
Asked about his plans for the congress, Gonsalves said he does not have “new plans” for the GTUC as the congress would have had its plan in the pipeline for quite some time, and he repeated that the issue is with implementation. He spoke of a 2004 retreat the congress held at Lake Mainstay where they dealt “with some things that are applicable now, so it is more or less looking at things we would have decided on at that last meeting…”
“We were able to hammer out some things that were bothering us… then. It is to look at that to see where we are now in light of what was discussed then to its relevance today,” he said.
While what would have been discussed would have been relevant Gonsalves admitted that since the meeting they have looked at the policy paper again and he said one of the first things he indicated when he became president was that it should be looked at now with the aim of moving congress forward.
While the GTUC once upon a time was the umbrella body for all unions in Guyana in recent years there has been a major fracture with some unions breaking away and forming their own umbrella body called the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG). The biggest union in Guyana, the Guyana Agricultural & General Workers Union (GAWU), is a member of that body which is closely affiliated with the government, and since the split every May Day there would be two rallies, one by FITUG and the other by the GTUC.
It is now the general feeling that because FITUG is linked to the government that it wields more power than the GTUC which at times is totally ignored by the government and some sections of society.
Asked about the issue of unity among unions, Gonsalves replied that it is a top priority even though he did not go into details as to how he would achieve what he himself termed a “herculean” task.
“I believe most if not all the trade unions in this country… understand that the TUC is here to stay. There is not a single body or a grouping that would be able to in any way demoralize or take from the Guyana Trade Union Congress anything as it relates to its function,” Gonsalves said.
He told the Sunday Stabroek what is happening is because of the political climate and that there “are groupings who are working assiduously to ensure that the TUC does not fulfil its mandate regarding dealing with workers’ rights and the rule of law.” He said one of the mandates of the GTUC is ensuring that every union is given fair treatment in terms of collective bargaining, among other issues.
Condemning the recent 5% increase for public servants that was announced by the government, Gonsalves stressed that collective bargaining is a right that should not be bypassed by anyone, thereby denying a union the right to bargain on behalf of its workers.
“It should not be allowed to go its own way by some government official announcing a 5% increase,” he noted.
And on the vexing issue of the Critchlow Labour College (CLC) ‒ the government has over the years withheld the annual subvention to the college under the guise of lack of accountability almost crippling it ‒ Gonsalves said that the college is still functioning at a certain level. While part of the building houses the Textilla University, Gonsalves said there are a few programmes being offered by the college and the lecturers are paid by the tuition fees, while some lecturers work on a voluntary or stipend basis.
“I am hoping that as President of the GTUC we would be able to engage the government to talk about this issue because it is an area that can be negotiated…” he said.
He noted that the trade union movement has earned its keep “and that it is not something that just shoot up like a mushroom; it is something that has been ongoing for many, many years.” Gonsalves said the issue of accountability should not be used to justify withholding the subvention.
“If you are going to take away something that is fundamental, something that has been given to an organization, you have to consult, you have to talk, you have to look at ways and means and help each other to understand…” he argued.
And while the next three years will not be easy ones and may yield nothing if the trade unions remain divided, Gonsalves said he is committed to effecting change, explaining that as a child growing up he always dreamt of the rule of law and justice. In his younger days when he moved from Berbice to Linden, Gonsalves said from an early stage he joined the Guyana Mine Workers Union and quickly moved to the position of branch secretary. He is currently the president of the Guyana Bauxite & General Workers Union and also served as the organizing secretary of the GTUC at one time.
Gonsalves said he accepted the role as president because he feels his background working in unions for over twenty years had given him the latitude to understand ,“In a general way and help the powers that be; I could make a difference.” He described the presidency as a challenge and ultimately he is of the opinion that he would have to let the powers that be understand that the rule of law must be respected.
“It would be a herculean task; I am aware of that but with the current executive body I think we can make a difference this time,” he said.