GAWU General Secretary May Day Address 2016

Introduction

Allow me to congratulate the workers here and all workers of Guyana on this important red-letter day of the working-class. Millions today in about eighty (80) countries, on all continents are celebrating this International Workers Day and using the occasion to reflect on their struggles and victories, their setbacks and indeed the tasks and challenges ahead.

Let us comrades remember the origins of this workers day. It has its beginnings in the workers’ struggle of 1886 when 80,000 Chicagoans took to the streets demanding an eight (8) hour working-day. Their struggle was met with brutal force by the police who were directed by the powers-that-be. That struggle in Chicago, USA inspired the Second International, a socialist organization, at their Congress in 1887, to resolve that May 01, every year be observed as International Workers Day.  That resolution, in the following years prompted Governments in many countries to approve May 01 as a National Holiday.

In 1930, the Father of Trade Unionism in Guyana, Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, and his Union, the British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU), began to observe this day. However, it was not until 1958, that the then Government approved May 01 as a National Holiday.

Workers of Guyana have a proud and consistent record of being faithful to the memory of those who struggled and made sacrifices for a better life.

International Situation

As we meet today, Comrades, the international situation remain grim but, yet encouraging as we see the growing militancy by the working people and others in many countries world-wide.

Wars, conflicts and threats of wars, especially in the Mid-East and Africa, go on unabatedly. Imperialism and its vassal instigate other wars as in Yemen unmindful of the death and destruction, the millions of uprooted lives, and the misery of the refugees these wars spawn. Even as new wars are pursued old problems like the Palestinian question continues to fester with Israel blatantly committing atrocities against the Palestinians with impunity.

We meet also when the world stands on the brink of a catastrophic conflict. This has come about through the insecurity felt by Russia and China particularly as they see bare-faced political and military activities in bordering countries and which actions are clearly hostile and threatening to them.

The rising tensions and conflicts of our times are obviously due to the breakdown of the global capitalist system. Over the last eight years, while trillions were given to shore up banks and finance houses the poor and working people received austerity measures and had to contend with cuts in real wages, increases in working hours, cuts in pensions and retirement benefits, regression of social and labour rights, and the denial of the right to bargain collectively and to strike.

Yes, the fortunes of the rich and the super-rich have soared and income inequality has reached unprecedented levels. The reputable organization, Oxfam, informs us that the world’s sixty-two (62) wealthiest individuals now own as much as the poorest half of the global population. This inequality exists alongside the plunder of the resources of the underdeveloped countries. Thus, we live in a world where poverty flourishes, of sprawling slums and haunted by the spectre of avoidable diseases and cuts in social services and pensions.

Though the world is still held in the grips of capitalism/imperialism and when the ruling classes nurture dreams of world domination, the GAWU notes with admiration the indomitable resolve of the working-peoples to resist and defend their gains, their civic and human rights, their democracy and their independent development. Latin America and the Caribbean must be specially mentioned in this regard as they push back against the intrigues and destablisation attempts directed at the peoples-oriented governments. To the democratic and progressive forces, in Venezuela, in Brazil, in Argentina, in Haiti and other countries, we express our strong solidarity. And, to Socialist Cuba at this time we send special solidarity greetings.

Aggravating the social, economic and political conditions of today is the ecological issue which is confronting humanity with disasters with increasing regularity. Never before in the history of humanity has our world experienced such levels of threats by nature. It is now left to us, humankind and our governments, to heed nature’s severe warnings and take the steps, even if belatedly, to preserve our future, our achievements and our species.

In this troubling world situation, workers and democratic forces in the developed world in increasing numbers are militantly challenging the dominant neo-liberal order. The massive struggles of the working-classes and their natural allies today are encouraging. Changes are knocking at many countries’ doors. We, as workers must be ready to influence those changes and seek to translate our vision for social justice and progress into reality.

As we march forward to a new day and to a brighter future, let us do so in unity, holding aloft the banner of peace, progress and proletarian internationalism. 

Local Situation

Over the past two (2) decades, comrades, Guyana has astutely treaded the path of economic development and growth. We have seen benefits in wage increases, in the education, health and housing sectors, in infrastructure, in improvements in the quality of life and many other accomplishments.

While we are proud of those gains and achievements we cannot fail to express our concern and worry at same time too. In recent times we have seen policies being promoted that have not been helpful to the working-people, especially the increases and introducing of new taxes and spending sprees. The GAWU urges our economic planners to tread carefully and reflect on past experiences for similar situations had painful effects on the workers and their families.

Our Union shares the view that we need to develop a society where everyone has a right to share in the resources of the land and to live a secure, dignified and full life. Workers must play their part to bring such a society into being. We must demand to be involved in the making of decisions to ensure that our dreams and aspirations become a reality.

Local Government Elections

At last, the long-awaited Local Government Elections were held. We hereby congratulate the hundreds of newly elected councillors.  We, at the same time, take the opportunity to call on these newly elected officials to serve in the interest of their electors. Important tasks like the maintenance of internal streets, roads, alley ways, sanitation, drainage, trench cleaning, garbage collection and disposal, etc must be attended to. We also call on the Government to put in place the Local Government Commission. The Minister of Communities must no longer exercise the extraordinary powers vested in the obsolete Act. We also call for the full compliance with the provisions contained in the Fiscal Transfers Act.

Collective Bargaining

On this Workers Day, we emphasize our displeasure at the disrespect shown to Collective Bargaining, a revered Trade Union-Employer practice, which was restored in 1989 between the GAWU and GuySuCo and which was denied to the Union last year (2015). This refusal is related to our demand for a nine (9) per cent pay rise for the sugar workers. GuySuCo a few weeks ago, instead of bargaining, unilaterally and bluntly told the Union “that at no time it would offer an increase for 2015”. The promised Collective Bargaining with Unions in the public service after almost one (1) year of the new Government has not been fulfilled. The big question is: Will the Government approve the twenty (20) per cent wage/salary rise this year as was promised during the elections campaign? Such an increase was shelved last year when public servants received only a five (5) per cent hike effective from July 01, 2015 rather than January 01, 2015. As we know, sugar workers received no increase. Workers! Take note and be vigilant!

National Minimum Wage

Comrades, when the National Minimum Wages was implemented, we heartily welcomed it. The Minimum Wage meant every worker should not be paid less than $202 per hour. But we now need an upgrade of those rates. The rising cost-of-living and the increases and introduction of some taxes justify such adjustments at this time.

Crime

Over recent weeks, Comrades, Guyana, from media reports, is experiencing yet another spike in the Crime situation. We are seeing a spike upon a spike upon a spike. When will some ease come? This development and, more particularly, the violent dimensions and their frequency have raised concerns and anger in various sectors and at every level of society. We of GAWU, indeed FITUG, believe that the situation is very serious. We need assuring results and the relevant authorities need to regularly review their tactics and endeavours to contain, reduce and eventually stamp out this menace from our midst, which we are well aware will adversely affect our economic development also.

Trade Union Unity

Comrades, today, it is pleasing to inform you that for the first time in many years the main trade union organisations in our country – the FITUG and the GTUC – are celebrating May Day and Labour Week under a united banner. As we speak the two (2) bodies are participating in a joint rally at the National Park. Our Union has always been supportive of measures towards engendering unity. We well recognize that unity among workers and their unions is essential to confront the challenges facing the working class in our country. Disunity can only serve those who are enriched by the work done by workers. Unity, as history shows over and over again, serves the working-class’ immediate and long-term goals.

We remain optimistic that collaboration between the FITUG and the GTUC will continue, improve and expand in the future. The two (2) bodies have agreed to jointly represent and advocate issues where there is commonality. Thus, fertile ground now exists for the re-unification of the Trade Union movement.

Sugar Industry

Comrades, in a few days’ time our nation will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of our Independence and the 40th Anniversary of the sugar industry’s nationalisation. Expectedly, we will reflect on the journey we took as a nation as well as our prior history. In this context, the sugar industry and its major role in our history and in shaping our society may receive deserving attention. Against this backdrop, we feel peeved that the industry’s workers who toil in the sun and rain, are now-a-days being treated in a disdainful manner.

It is lamentable that for the first time in over three (3) decades, the thousands of workers did not obtain a wage adjustment. GuySuCo’s refused to discuss pay rise for 2015 with the Union. Such refusal is a disregard of Trade Union practices and a violation of laws, international conventions, and our agreements. Not only sugar workers but indeed all workers should express indignation over this development. Let us halt it before it spreads. Sugar workers will do their duty to safeguard and defend their gains and rights. However, there are some issues that require our collective response. Respect of Collective Bargaining is one of those. Additionally, the GAWU believes that the state has a duty to ensure that its employees in sugar are reasonably compensated especially since other state employees have deservingly benefited from a rise in pay.

At this time, for the thousands of workers and others who are linked to Wales Sugar Estate the threat of joblessness, ruination and greater hardships hangs over their heads. The closure decision, GAWU believes, is a step in the wrong direction especially in the absence of any general impact assessment and in view of the Sugar Commission of Inquiry explicit recommendation that no Estate be closed. Our Union urges the relevant authorities to act wisely and not proceed to close Wales Estate. We say:- Put the well-being of our working people foremost in your consideration.  GAWU also urges that a similar assessment be done with respect to the present operations at LBI Estate where the consequences of closure to the workers there are also great.

Comrades, the sugar industry’s state of health and performance are, naturally, of great interest to us.  We believe the challenges the industry faces are surmountable and with adequate resources and able leadership it can be placed on a sustainable footing. As we well know, sugar’s success will redound to the wider interest of our economy and the employment for tens of thousands of Guyanese will be assured.

We believe a key factor for success is GuySuCo’s ability and capability to grow a sufficient quantity of good-quality canes. We have the adequate land at the seven (7) grinding estates to produce the required quantity. With good management, a satisfied labour force and innovations, the industry can certainly regain its profitable status in a short while.

The future prospects for sugar are bright. In recent weeks we saw the upward movement of the price in the world market; there is also the steady growth in global consumption; there are the possibilities for value-added projects in terms of packaged sugar and bottled molasses as well as diversification in the areas of co-generation, distilling and refining. All this, says the industry can be successfully turned around. The authorities must abandon consideration of closure and the state must reassure workers, tangibly, that it stands with them.

Conclusion

Comrades, as we celebrate May Day 2016, let us be mindful of the arduous path we travelled, our successes and the objectives before us. We still have many battles to fight. Today, bread and butter, security and democracy issues are of foremost concern. As workers we need to be more assertive in demanding our rights. We need to work with all, and particularly with our natural allies, the farmers, to achieve the tasks and attain the goals we have. We must be organised, militant and united if we are to score victories and expand on our gains.

Today’s conditions do not call for complacency but for struggles. Let us draw inspiration and join with the workers of the world to usher in a new day for mankind. The spirit of Chicago, 1886, lives on in our times. We too in Guyana must stand up and be counted. We seek a world order which is founded on peace, ecological responsibility, social and economic justice, and free of oppression and exploitation. Let us, comrades, strive for a society where people not profits are of primary concern.

At this time we send May Day greetings to our members and all Guyanese.

Together, let us reaffirm our solidarity with the workers and the oppressed, the democratic, liberation and peace forces and climate activists world-wide.

Long live May Day!

Long live Proletarian Internationalism!

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