Labour at the crossroad: again

Today is Labour Day, and, if nothing else, after the customary traipsing in the streets of Guyana is resumed after the COVID-19 lockdown, it should be a day of introspection as to the state of their movement, the reasons for that state, and the crafting of a plan to address identified challenges. Unfortunately, the divisions that resulted in a split of the umbrella Trade Union Movement (TUC) to form the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG) evidently remain firmly in place, and are a major factor in the moribund state of workers’ affairs.
This is very unfortunate. Starting in 1980 with the election of President Reagan in the US on the heels of PM Margaret Thatcher in Britain, the neo-liberal economic philosophy that gives short shrift to trade unions became mainstreamed. Ironically, the imposition of the Washington Consensus policies based on that philosophy in 1989, after the PNC regime accepted an IMF loan and “conditionalities”, witnessed a continuation of one of the most vibrant periods in our trade union history. The major unions representing workers in sugar and bauxite took a common position in terms of safeguarding the interests of their membership.
Four decades later, however, as mentioned above, that unity is gone, even as neo-liberal economic principles have demonstrated, in the very countries that promulgated and practised them, that they are doomed to fail. In 2008, the developed economies crashed because of inherent contradictions in the model, and a recovery is still problematic. The other trend that has been confirmed is a widening inequality gap in those same countries – along with others in the developing countries that followed their model. French economist Thomas Picketty introduced the term “1%”, which summarises the seeming inevitable concentration of wealth in the owners of capital to such an extent that the top 1% can own more than the bottom 80%. He showed that, historically, the rate of return on capital (which goes to owners) exceeds the rate of growth – from which workers can benefit economically.
And this is where trade unions come in – or should return. Trade unions were formed towards the end of the 19th century, as the early wave of industrialisation had demonstrated the consequences of Picketty’s equation on workers. Through the agitation of these unions, conditions improved and workers in the developed countries secured very high remuneration, which offered them a comfortable life. In the colonies, the development lagged, and it is interesting that the first trade union in the Commonwealth was formed right here in Guyana – the British Guiana Labour Union of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow – in 1919. It took two decades for one to be established in the sugar belt – the Man Power Citizen’s Association (MPCA).
Sadly, they were working to distribute a very small pie, and this was made smaller by the misguided economic policies of the PNC that governed for twenty-eight years. Today, because of the fortuitous discovery of massive oil strikes off our Atlantic shore, the pie is about to become very, very large. The IMF and World Bank have confirmed our GDP would be growing at an astronomic pace. And this is where trade unions must work to ensure that workers get a fair share of that GDP. By now we are all aware of the distinction between “growth and development”: the former is necessary but not sufficient for the realisation of the latter, which includes workers’ welfare.
What is needed is not the neo-liberal “night watchman” state – but one that regulates the economy so that the nation’s wealth is distributed in a matter that benefits the widest possible spectrum of the nation. The trade union does not only have to agitate for wages, but for retention or expansion of the segments of the economy that benefit all: health and education facilities, infrastructure such as roads and bridges, and facilitating job creation by the business community.
The trade unions must get their act together to ensure there is equity for their membership, which constitutes the largest bloc of Guyanese.