Labour Day: Confrontational approach must be moderated

As we commemorate another Labour Day, all of us – not just members of the trade unions – need to reflect on what exactly is the point behind the rallies and the marches by the workers decked out in red and white. It has often been the case that, after performing an activity for a number of years, we begin to repeat it reflexively, out of sheer habit, with no real consciousness of what the action was originally intended to achieve. One may discover that, with the passage of time and changes in circumstances, the event has become passé and, indeed, irrelevant. Then, again, it may be even more necessary, and needs intensification.
It may be useful in pointing out that almost all of our people, save for the Indigenous Peoples, were brought here as labourers. The ruling Europeans that exploited their labour on the plantations were never more than a comparative handful. In a sense, therefore, we are all affiliated with labour. None of us would deny the harsh – indeed inhumane – conditions under which the early labourers toiled, and would not be surprised that our history is in essence a timeline punctuated with periodic violent outbursts against the immanent abuse.
The quotidian sullen antagonism merely served as a backdrop.
While one would not want to equate the conditions under which our forebears laboured and those in the colonial “mother” country, the former were not exactly a bed of roses. By the middle of the 19th century, trade unions had been formed in Britain to agitate for better working conditions; and, by 1871, they were granted official recognition. It is to the credit of our forebears that, not long after, they followed suit here. We can be proud that Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow formed the very first officially recognised trade union in the entire British Commonwealth right here in Guyana in 1919. It does not take away anything from his achievement to note that he was assisted by the British trade unionists.
And just as the latter group had discovered that they needed direct access to the legislative system, so that their demands could be enshrined in the statutes of the land, and formed the Labour Party, so, too, did our local agitators. So, our trade union movement gave birth to our modern political movements – both Jagan and Burnham were members and leaders of unions – that demanded much more radical changes in the status quo of working conditions than had the older, traditional reformist politicians.
But out of this early (and entirely appropriate) radical beginning, some trade unions have, to a large degree, retained the confrontational and agitational style that characterised their early modus operandi, but in the services of political, rather than labour interests. The question that we implicitly posed in the beginning is whether such a style is appropriate in the world we have now found ourselves? We posit that, because of local and global reasons, it is inappropriate. Locally, there will be an inevitable recalibration of our economy to deal with the diversification funded by oil revenues. Globalisation has created a scenario in which capital and investments are almost seamlessly fungible, and will flow to countries that create the least disruption in operation.
This is not to imply that unions have to abandon working for improvement in workers’ benefits and wages. But this work has to modify the rhetoric and reality of war: “struggle”, “fight”, “shut-down” etc. especially when solely political agendas are being pushed. In this globalised world, labour will have to conceive of their role as partners with the managers of companies to literally deliver the goods as efficiently as possible. We cannot cut our noses to spoil our faces.
Just as riots became irrelevant after not simply the legalisation of trade unions, but the official acceptance of workers’ right to a living wage, the confrontational approach must be moderated, because unions should now understand that even that living wage can disappear overnight if they do not factor in global conditions when making local demands.