Thank you for giving me this opportunity to be the Guest Speaker to your 5th Triennial Delegates’ Conference. It is indeed an honor to speak to your delegates and guests since some of the founders and very early members of your Union were members and founders of the political party which I have been a member for my whole adult life, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP).
One of the founders of CCWU, H.J.M Hubbard, was also a founder of the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) the organization that was the forerunner of the PPP. Comrade Hubbard served as General Secretary of the TUC in the 1940s. He was a member of the Cabinet from 1961 to 1964 in the PPP government and made a sterling contribution in a very difficult period of our history.
The other person was Janet Jagan who was the very first Field Secretary of the CCWU. Mrs. Jagan faced many adversaries throughout her life but her faith in the working class was undiminished. In fact all four of the founders of the Political Affairs Committee were also prominent members of the Trade Union Movement they were Cheddi and Janet Jagan, Ashton Chase and H.J.M Hubbard. Therefore I feel a sense of history being here today as I recognize how history has linked us together.
I, myself, worked closely with two other towering figures of your Union. Gordon Todd and Berchmoore Philadelphia, President and General Secretary of this Union. This was in the late eighties when we were all fighting for the democratization of the TUC which eventually led to the formation of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG). Those were difficult even dangerous days, but they served to create bonds of friendships in our service to working people.
I, together with Cde. Mithoolall Mangal then assistant General Secretary of the GAWU, went to your union to study how to set up GAWU’s credit union in the late 1980s. so its good to be back to renew our long held friendship.
Comrades, you are meeting under the theme “Study the Past, Seize the Present, Shape the Future.” It is a very timely slogan which offers us a sound methodology to approach the many challenges that face the working people of our country and the world.
Your conference is taking place at a time when the world is undergoing much turbulence and seems more dangerous than any time in our history. Some of these problems are considered global issues. This involves a real danger to the whole of mankind; I am referring to climate change.
Every year the environmental conditions are getting worse. Wild fires are raging in the US western areas. This has become an annual event. Europe too is burning, UK, France, Spain are all experiencing heat waves that are breaking all records. The wild fires have reached as far as Siberia in Russia, an area previously known for its cold weather.
While this is occurring on the one hand, on the other we are witnessing unusually heavy rainfalls that are creating additional misery as it produces landslides and floods. Too many people are losing their lives in these disasters. In Sierra Leone in Africa Land Slides have killed thousands and left many in misery without a shelter over their heads. Natural disasters are becoming more frequent, with greater ferocity. Hurricanes in our region. Let me note here that every year we see these monster storms forming more and more south in the Atlantic. That should be a worry for us in Guyana. Tornadoes etc. have all been doing severe damage in US and Asia.
We now have another category of refugees, the climate change refugees, mainly in the Pacific Islands where people have to abandon their homes due to the rising sea levels.
All of these are taking place because of mankind’s over exploitation of nature. Almost a hundred and fifty years ago a working class champion warned what would happen if such exploitation of nature continued. Frederick Engels wrote the following in 1876 when Climate Change as a term did not make its appearance. He said “…the animal merely uses its environment, and brings about changes in it simply by his presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals, and once again it is labor that brings about this distinction.
“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people, who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivatable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centers and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.”
Since then man’s understanding of our relations to nature has increased many fold. More than fifty years ago scientists have warned us that the overexploitation of nature was leading the world to catastrophe, even posing a threat to life as we know it on this world.
For instance the big oil companies knew since the early 1970s that fossil fuel was changing the climate and would lead to detrimental environmental changes. At first they hid that information, then they tried to discredit it and finally while they were forced to admit it they subverted any actions to deal with the issue by using their power and influence on the governments in the developed countries. Billions are spent on lobbyists and investing in politicians who support them in their drive to maximize their profits.
This is the nature of the international system that we live under. International capital mostly cares for its immediate profits and pay lip service to environment. I wish to remind you of the fight the tobacco industry had put up to try to prevent any actions due to the exposure of the fact that tobacco was a main cause of lung cancer. Like the oil industry they knew decades before of the great harm to life yet they fought tooth and nail against any regulations of it. This is the nature of the beast that is fighting any measure that appears to affect their bottom line.
Today despite our concrete knowledge, forests continue to be destroyed by the mining, ranching and such other activities. Many of them illegal but driven by greed.
The huge wealth that is being created by these merchants of death is more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Today we hear about the fact that 0.1% of the richest persons in the world have more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population or some 3.5 billion souls. This is an obscenity of no mean order. We don’t hear this from the mainstream media because of the interlocking ownership of these mighty corporations.
It is true that many governments that speak about this issue are advocating technical solutions. Yet the reality is that we never had such advanced technologies as we have today but the environment is the worse it has ever been. Those governments hide behind technology because most of them are products of big business and are incapable of confronting it on this life and death issue.
Clearly, my friends, technologies alone are not enough. The main problem lies in the system. P. J. Dunning, a British Trade Unionist wrote a book in 1860 entitled “Trades’ Unions and Strikes: their Philosophy and Intention” he wrote that “…Capital is said to fly turbulence and strife, and to be timid, which is very true; but this is very incompletely stating the question. Capital eschews no profit, or very small profit, just as nature was formerly said to abhor a vacuum. With adequate profit, capital is very bold. A certain 10 per cent will ensure its employment anywhere; 20 per cent, certain will produce eagerness; 50 per cent positive audacity; 100 per cent will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300 per cent and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged. If turbulence and strife will bring a profit, it will freely encourage both. Smuggling and the slave trade have amply proved all that is here stated.”
This, I believe, captures the nature of Capital better than any that I have seen before.
This explains why wars, conquests and dominations continue to our day despite our knowledge of their environmental and other consequences. Those who control the world’s economy are proving incapable of solving the most dangerous problems of our times because their aim continues to be world domination so their corporations can continue to earn colossal profits. They seem oblivious to the sufferings and loss of human lives.
Let’s take for instance the war raging in Ukraine. The tragedy of this is that it was totally avoidable. All that was needed was to recognize Russia’s valid and legitimate security concerns. But Ukraine is not the only catastrophe in the world. The flood disasters in south Sudan, the war in Tigre, Ethiopia are creating untold miseries for people who have so little.
The Trade Union Movement should join with progressive forces locally, regionally and internationally to demand disarmament and Peace in our world. No one is safe on our planet with such destructive weapons in the hands of unscrupulous people. We need world leaders who are serious about peace and who are ready to take concrete measures for peace. This is the first indispensible step towards solving the Global issues.
Fortunately workers, farmers and ordinary folks are fighting back. Unfortunately much of those fights back are not or are only barely reported by the main stream media. I have not seen much reports of the railway strike in the UK, nor the massive protests of farmers in the Netherlands, nor about the strike by truckers in Canada nor the massive protests by farmers in India, supported by the Trade Unions in India that caused the Indian Government to withdraw a law which they had passed late in the day almost in the dark.
So comrades there is hope when we take justified actions to defend our class interests and the common interests of all the world’s oppressed. We can do more if we build stringer solidarity. After all a victory of workers in any country is our victory as well.
Let me now draw your attention to the many problems that have been and are affecting our movement at home. As you must be aware we have many problems and challenges. Some of these are similar and even connected to the International Trades Union Movement. The theme that you have chosen for this conference offers you a great approach to discussing these issues and hopefully to assist you to chart a course in confronting them.
One of these is the fall in the membership of the Trade Unions here and abroad. Some of the reasons are common and universal. The fact is that science and technologies are displacing labor at a faster rate than before and the creation of new jobs which economists say will develop with new technologies, are lagging and not catching up in a timely manner.
Some are caused by the fact that many of the new workers do not see themselves as workers. Many in the tech industry still see themselves as something else. These are highly educated workers but their consciousness lags behind their actual place in the system of production.
Another common problem is the division of the working class and Trades Union movement both at home and abroad.
I hope that you will use your links to the various internationals to propagate and pursue unity of the various centers in the world. You must seek alliances in the region and abroad. It is division that is retarding our struggles.
At home you have greater scope to promote working class unity. In the first place I wish to point out that we have in this country thousands of workers that are unorganized. Those workers are exploited and have hardly any representation. This is an area where the movement as a whole should concentrate on. All our unions should seriously interrogate this matter; seek cooperation and not competition to bring the unorganized into your ranks.
This is imperative since our country is attracting a lot of investments in almost all sectors of our economy. Many that are coming could be hostile to unions. We have to ensure that the workers who they would employ must have the right to join a trade union. The Ministry of Labor must make that clear to all new local and foreign investors. The Trade Union Movement must make this a priority.
I recall that it was not until Cheddi Jagan became President of Guyana that Omai recognized a trade union became the then PPP/Civic Government took an uncompromising position on that issue. We must uphold that tradition. This is one issue you should raise with government. Preventing workers from joining a union is a human rights question and employers must be aware of that!
Unions must seek alliances at home, even merging to increase your strength and we must take the lead in uniting the Trade Unions in the Caribbean.
That is why I am supportive of the GAWU’s initiative in seeking alliance with the Oil Field Workers Union of Trinidad and Tobago. Other unions and their umbrella bodies should do the same.
I know that the GAWU came in for some criticism from one of the Private Sector organizations. It was rather ironic. After all many private sector companies are very busy making alliances with the new entrants from abroad. We even have foreign Chambers of Commerce here all working with their local counter parts. Yet objections and opposition are made when workers organizations seek to unite.
The most important and immediate issue is the unity of our trade union movement. Comrades and friends speaking frankly the Private Sector are much more united than labor and they are wielding great influence in our society. They are even called upon to help formulate policies. That is how influential they are because they are better organized.
On the other hand labor has grown weaker. The reasons for this must be sought and dealt with. Merely appealing for unity is not enough we must create the conditions for it to become a reality.
Your theme offers us the way to seek the truth and to chart a course for solutions.
I am happy to be given this opportunity to express some views on this vital matter even though it may be considered controversial by some, I would feel that I have succeeded if it can contribute to discussions in the movement as a whole.
The division of our movement did not take place with the split in the TUC in the 1980s. it has its roots as far back as 1953. Recall that on October 9, 1953 when the Constitution of British Guiana was suspended another suspension took place which is not spoken of these days. That is the disbanding of the British Guiana Trades Union Congress. This militant organization was destroyed because it genuinely defended workers and supported the PPP’s drive for independence. The colonial masters wanted a pliant TUC.
The disbanding of the “old” TUC was done to purge it out of the genuine workers leaders of that period.
It was re established in December of that same year but its militant leadership was excluded. It was re established by the colonial power to support colonialism to fight against the Independence movement led by the PPP.
Recall the first act of that new TUC was to send a message to the Secretary of State for the colonies via the Governor congratulating and supporting the suspension of our constitution.
Later on when the Independence Movement was fractured in 1955 the TUC took the side of those forces fighting against freedom, on the side reaction.
During the CIA financed racial riots of the 1962 to 1964 period the TUC was an important instrument that supported and helped in the division of the two major race groups in this country. Of course that was how the working class first got divided in this country.
In May of 1963 more than 400 Indian Guianese workers tendered their resignation to the National Union of Public Service Employees (NUPSE) because they complained of harassment and being denied strike relief and of being threatened. During that period Indian workers could not go to the Union offices in Georgetown to collect strike relief for fear of being harassed.
One of the reasons in my mind for the continued division in the movement is the fact that the same structures set up by the British to support colonial exploitation and to fracture the solidarity of the workers of this country remains in place to this day. It is clear in my opinion that the Labor Movement in Guyana is in need of democratization. That is the only way that we can get beyond that period in our history and lay the foundations for a strong labor movement so desperately needed today.
This raises the issue of Politics and the Trade Union Movement. I am not one that would argue that trade unionists and unions should not get involved in politics. I believe that it is futile to make such a call. However what I would like to call your attention to is the nature of politics that you should be engaged in. Your politics as Trade unionists must be on what is good for the working people of this country. Regardless of your political party’s preference. This should be your only guiding principle. You should support every measure that is in the interest of the working class regardless of where it emanates from and vice versa oppose everything that retards their progress.
That unfortunately is not the case today. I have seen some persons prominent in the Labor movement often charging the government with practicing racial discrimination. I have no problem with them doing so if it is true. However, they hardly take the time to provide hard facts or any evidence to prove their charges. Those charges have now become more slogans designed to reinforce a mindset that some unscrupulous politicians have succeeded to entrench in the minds of many in the Afro Guyanese community, especially workers.
Charges of racism are used liberally even when the population benefitting is universal. Take for instance the “Because We Care” programme we hear charges of Racial Discrimination. Even food or snacks are being racially weaponized. Recall the black pudding outburst by one of the prominent commentators in this country whose only purpose in life appears to be to promote disharmony and divisions.
While those slogans may serve some political goals, Trade Unionists must know that all it is doing is keeping the working class divided. This division has affected and is negatively the whole working class movement. Undoubtedly it must affect the Trades Union movement as well.
This is taking place in the face of a very united private sector movement and the advent of powerful transnational foreign companies. Division of the movement in these circumstances is going to lead to further decline and the marginalization of the Labor. We cannot afford this!
It seems to me therefore that Trade Unionists must abandon identity politics, which inevitably leads to divisions and return to class politics which promotes unity of workers and farmers.
Our workers organizations must lead by example and must avoid taking positions that can discredit the organizations.
Many in this movement make charges against government and call for inclusion. Well I support inclusivity. But we should look and see how inclusive we are in this movement. Let’s examine the leadership of our unions and see if it includes all races or enough women and that it has a balance of experience and youth. Such an examination could be revealing.
What we need today are working people who are conscious of their position in society and who would be ready to struggle to advance its own interests as a class. This should be done not only in the economic sphere but also in the political arena. Working people must have a seat at the table and be able to influence government’s policies as well.
The politics by trade unionists which appears to be promoting the interests of any political party will inevitably lead to suspicions and push backs. That is glaring in our society because of the identity politics pursued by some in our movement.
I believe to raise the consciousness of the working class calls for a lot of educational work. We must not allow working people to fall under the ideological influence of the private sector. Therefore the leadership given to the working people must be honest and intelligent. It means that we must examine where we have made mistakes and correct them. We must teach our own history and the history of the international working class so we can arm ourselves with knowledge to push forward our positions.
I know I’ll be swimming against the tide and may very well be called outdated when I raise here the failure of the working people to protect public enterprises. We have remained quiet when other forms of ownership apart from private ownership are criticized.
Our economy is now almost completely in the hands of the private sector. GUYSUCO is about the only state enterprise that still exists. But with the trend and the abysmal management I’m seeing that will not last for much longer.
We have failed in Bauxite and in Sugar. I ask myself why? The only answer I can come up with is that we did not transform relations in the nationalized industries. The managerial class was transformed into a bureaucratic capitalist class and viewed the workers with hostility while the workers saw no difference with in ownership. They were never really involved in managing these enterprises, never involved in any way. That accounted for the failure of state enterprises.
That is really tragic because its failure had negative consequences for all of us.
When sugar and bauxite were under the same ownership it generated unity and solidarity among the workers. In our context that was unity among African and Indian Guyanese. Their failure has led to the loosening of that solidarity. I recall the solidarity of those two groups of workers during epic struggles in the mid 1970s and the 1980s.
While I am aware of many positives of private enterprise I urge you not to see that as the only model for development. I still believe that public and cooperative ownership have just as important a role to play. I point you to China and Vietnam as evidence of that. We should study their experiences and see what is useful in it for us.
We should never allow workers to feel that they are incapable of managing. That is why we should not go with the tide and say that private ownership is the only viable way!
My friends allow me to return once more to the racial problem which has retarded our growth and has affected the workers the most.
I know that many good intentioned persons have been making appeals for unity. Yet we have not solved this problem.
Using your theme again, that is to seek an understanding of our present by studying our past I want to leave you with some of my views on the matter.
I recall in several discussions with Dr. Jagan we were always cautioned not to underestimate nor over exaggerate the problem. This is the approach I have always followed.
I believe that the racial question in Guyana is not as intractable as it seems, I believe we have made progress and we can advance much further. I say so because all those who studied the racial issue throughout the world point to the fact that it is always rooted in economics. It is a situation where one section of the population is exploited so that another set can have a high life. That was the case in Apartheid South Africa and in segregated USA. It is the case in apartheid Israel visa vie the oppressed and super exploited Palestinian people today.
In Guyana no such conditions exist. It is true that most of the rich people in our country are Indian Guyanese but that is a handful of persons. The average Indian Guyanese population in general is not better off than their African counter parts. There is no economic underpinning of racism in our society.
Racism was introduced here as a means of defeating the Independence movement during the 1950s. To entrench racism and keep us forever divided our electoral system was changed from First Pass the Post to Proportional Representation. We were the only country/colony where the PR was imposed. Britain and the US which pushed the system on us had rejected it in their own countries.
Why have they rejected it? Because they argued that PR leads to weak governments.
In 1962 when Trinidad was going to Independence PR was proposed for their electoral system. It was rejected by the very British and by the PNM. Prime Minister Eric Williams in his opposition to it said that it would lead to the balkanization of Trinidad and Tobago and the British agreed with him.
It was for that same reason both Dr. Williams and the then Prime Minister of Jamaica Sir Alexander Bustamante were vehemently opposed to PR for BG. So strong was Busta’s feeling that he refused to send any observers to the 1964 elections. In passing let me note that this was a very principled position of Sir Alexander for his ideological position and Dr. Jagan’s were poles apart.
Moreover, my friends when we look around the world we see that the PR system leads to political instability, weak governments and it perpetuates differences of race, religion etc which often leads to clashes.
This was the case in Italy where we had some 70 governments from 1964 to 2016 compared to 25 in the UK and 24 in Germany. It is happening today in Israel where they are going to the 5th elections in two years. In Israel too it is contributing towards fascist like attacks on the Palestinian peoples.
Historians are of the view that the PR system was one of the factors that was responsible for the rise of Hitler to power in the 1930s. I think that that was one of the factors that influenced Germany to move from that system after the war in 1945.
In Guyana too we have seen how racism is being pushed by unscrupulous persons to hold on to some mass support. Those who can click their fingers and get a crowd to create mayhem would not want to voluntarily give up that type of power. That is why it is so emphasized.
That is why I am advocating that we return to the constituency or First Pass the Post System. The main reasons, I wish to re emphasize, is that it forces political parties to organize on national issues and it deemphasizes race.
The other reason is that the First Pass the Post system promotes strong governments. That is very important and will become even more important in the future as we will be forced to deal with very strong and influential corporations. We must guard our sovereignty and prevent large corporations from being able to buy seats in our legislative arms of Government and create a new type of colonization.
In conclusion let me thank you for inviting me here. I hope that you will have and I wish you fruitful deliberations at this year conference.
Donald Ramotar –
Former President Guyana & Ambassador at large for the Global Indian