This year’s commemoration of Enmore Martyrs Day illustrated the vast changes that have been wrought in labour and its relations in Guyana since the shootings on June 16, 1948 at Enmore sugar plantation. The raison d’etre for Guyana, of course, was sugar, since it was those golden crystals shipped to Europe – rather than the gold of the fabled El Dorado – that generated the profits to fund the settlements since the early 17th century. This year, as it had been for five years, Enmore Sugar Factory had been shuttered, and the cane fields abandoned. Even a packaging plant that was supposed to “add value” to the product was relocated.
The story of Enmore Martyrs Day should be familiar to all Guyanese: five sugar workers shot, some in the back, as they protested living and working conditions. The occasion for the strike that was called was a drastic change in the cane cutters’ work regimen from “cut and drop” to “cut and load”. In the latter method, the cane cutter had to also transfer the cane into the punts, which was much more onerous and also eliminated the workers, frequently women, who would have performed that task. But the cause of the strike was actually for the recognition of a new union, the Guiana Industrial Workers’ Union (GIWU), sponsored by Cheddi Jagan and the Political Affairs Committee (PAC).
The GIWU had been formed in 1946 to challenge the Man Power Citizen Association (MPCA), which had been recognised in 1939 after the shooting and killing of 4 sugar workers at Leonora, as the recognised bargaining union for sugar workers by the Sugar Producers Association (SPA). The GIWU was registered in April 1948, the same month in which the Enmore strike was called, and as such wanted to demonstrate its militancy as opposed to what they described as the lethargy of the “company union”, MPCA. The two approaches, however, actually represented two divergent approaches to trade unionism.
The MPCA operated in the British/American tradition, which accepted the capitalist nature of organising production, and saw their role as working with the owners of the enterprises to obtain the best wages and working conditions for workers. On the other hand, even though led by Dr JP Latchmansingh from the BGEIA, GIWU was inspired by the Marxist Socialist ideology of Dr Cheddi Jagan, which dubbed MPCA’s approach reactionary and at best reformist. Ultimately, GIWU proposed the industries must be nationalised and operated by the workers. In the 1948 strike, however, GIWI focused on the change on the work rule and on better wages and working conditions.
It was very interesting that Ayube Edun, the leader of the MPCA, also proposed a type of Socialist approach to organising the economy in general, and the sugar industry in particular. In his self-created “Rational Practical Idealism” philosophy, he also proposed nationalisation of industries, but as far as labour was concerned, he saw the relationship with owners more as a partnership, and in the case of Guyana, working along with the Imperial Government for the betterment of citizens. He would point to his approach witnessing the enactment of the Sugar Industry Labour Welfare Fund (SILWF) Act in 1947, which from 1950 created 12,000 housing units for sugar workers to replace their logies.
Even after the 1948 strike, shootings and killings, while the MPCA was discredited, the “cut and load” practice was retained, and remain in place to date. GIWU did not gain recognition, and in the 1955 split in the PPP — which had been formed in 1950 — Latchmansingh went with Burnham, and Jagan launched the Guyana Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU). The latter was finally recognised after a quid pro quo arrangement in 1976 by Burnham’s PNC Government to support nationalisation of the industry. By then Burnham had imposed a levy on sugar exports that removed the profit-sharing the sugar workers had won in 1968.
In the present, with sugar fast disappearing, to be replaced by a new economy fuelled by oil revenues, sugar and other unions would have to invent a model of labour relations such as was worked out post-WWII.