May 2, 2011

Some thoughts on the contemporary trade union movement in the Caribbean

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.

Read full article here.

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