June 16 marks 65 years since the colonial police gunned down five sugar workers on the East Coast of Demerara, who were among the group struggling for better working conditions. The Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) and the trade unions in the Americas (ORIT) subsequently de-clared at a conference in Panama City that those who were gunned down must be considered as martyrs and their lives must not have been snuffed out in vain. This petition was brought by General Secretary Joseph Pollydore, representing the GTUC.
The sentiment of the trade union community was communicated to the Forbes Burnham administration that took a decision and in 1976 erected a monument at Enmore in honour of the fallen brothers. The acceptance of this by the government of the day was seen as a covenant to the workers and citizens of Guyana that never again will the State police turn its guns on workers and citizens in pursuit of their legitimate interests. This covenant was broken when in May 1999 the State police turned its guns on public servants peacefully protesting outside of John Fernandes Wharf in pursuit of better salaries and improved working conditions. And again in July 2012 against the Lindeners who were demanding that their constitutional rights be respected.
From the time the Enmore Martyrs monument was erected commemorative activities were conducted yearly. But while the yearly activities were characterised as a national event, the GTUC was assigned specific responsibilities which included mobilising the trade union community for attendance, chairing the proceedings both at the cemetery and Enmore, and having an official speaker at both events.
Over recent years the GTUC was arbitrarily removed from chairing any one of the activities, then subsequently told by the government who must speak on behalf of the body, and then being totally taken off the programme. It is shocking that at an event that was initially used as a national unifier in pursuit of an amicable and mutually respectful environment, is today used to heap scorn on some, shut out some, become a political divisive event, and is used to create and sustain disrespect and contempt for the other.
Backtracking some, while the PPP in opposition and GAWU embraced the national prominence given to the sugar workers, the groups refused on several occasions to participate in the national event and held their own rallies. For instance the national event was conducted in the morning and the PPP/GAWU held their rally in the evening.
I am conscious while serving as Organising Secretary of the GTUC some of the families of the martyrs made specific demands from the State as a prerequisite for their involvement which had to be honoured.
Today the intent of those (GTUC and ORIT) who called for the martyrdom of these workers to be recognized is far from being realised based on the manifestations that are currently taking place, some of which are the right to freedom of association (union of choice), right to collective bargaining, and to be involved on matters that impact their wellbeing in the workplace. And while the cut and load system may have been given prominence, underlying it was the struggle for equality, respect and dignity, a struggle that is still being waged in the industry and wider society.
It must be said that we are living in a time not only where people have to struggle for dignity, respect and equality on matters of day to day existence, but they are also having to confront being accorded their rightful place in and contributions to society. It must also be said for
those who do not know, and to those who seek to deny/rewrite history, that the recognition given to the fallen comrades as martyrs was fought for by the Guyana Trades Union Congress and recognised and implemented by the Forbes Burnham government.
The GTUC remains committed to the ideals that led us to stand up for the sugar workers of 1948.
Guyana Trades Union Congress