The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union (GAWU) launched its GAWU Labour College last Thursday, built at a cost of $110 million. It was a memorable event. A large cross-section of Guyanese was present – from labour, business and politics – and they joined in welcoming the opening of the school by Senior Counsel, Ashton Chase, erstwhile eminent politician and labour leader. The President of GAWU, Komal Chand, outlined the aims and objectives of the College. The Ministers of Labour and Education offered their congratulations and pledged their support. Dr. Ana Teresa Romero, the director of the International Labour Organisation Subregional Office for the Caribbean, addressed the ceremony which was chaired by the Principal of the College, Navin Chandrapal. The establishment of the College was recognized by all the speakers to be an outstanding achievement for the Union and a milestone for labour education for Guyana.
The GAWU Labour College is the second of its kind in Guyana. The Critchlow Labour College was established many years ago and is managed by the Trades Union Congress (TUC). It was a flourishing educational institution which was heavily subsidized by the Government. However, the division in the labour movement had its inevitable repercussions on the Critchlow Labour College. The subsidies from the Government were discontinued as a result of disagreement in the implementation of reforms in the management of the Critchlow Labour College. It has recently opened its doors once again and it must be the hope of all persons of goodwill that Critchlow will be restored to its place of eminence in the educational system as soon as possible.
The GAWU Labour College nevertheless has a vital role to play in educating workers for several main purposes. These are to improve their overall general education to enable them to make a greater contribution to the society; to equip them with the capacity to understand the operations of businesses and industries so that they can better represent the interests of members of their union; to educate them in the techniques of collective bargaining, negotiation and the art of compromise; to ensure that they know the basics of the labour and employment laws which offer protection for workers so that they can defend workers’ rights. This is a tall order but GAWU and the new principal of the College have broad shoulders. With the kind of commitment which was displayed at the opening, there is no doubt that the College will be a success.
Guyana is a country that boasted working class governments since 1957. It was therefore shocking to learn that, as announced by Manzoor Nadir, the Minister of Labour, only twenty percent of workers are unionized. It is difficult to comprehend that in a society like ours, with such overriding sympathy for the workers’ cause, such a small percentage of workers have been organized. The clear conclusion is that sympathetic administrations, at least in Guyana, do not by their mere existence expand the body of organized workers. It is hoped that a more educated body of workers, produced with the help of the GAWU Labour College, will be able to persuade their unorganized colleagues to join trade unions.
Unorganised workers are not the only persons who need to be engaged. Employers must be convinced that they should relinquish their fears of organized workers. This will only happen when trade unionists reduce or abandon their rhetoric which drives fear into employers as the workers’ deadliest enemies. This sometimes frightening rhetoric, if not deliberately designed to drive fear in employers, certainly end up doing so.
Trade unionists need to modernize their approach to employers, in particular those in state owned institutions and in small scale businesses. They are not the ogres of imperialism that the left or the working class movement should be concerned about. Trade unions need to have a second look at the hostile take over approach. Sure, some degree, sometimes a high degree, of militancy is required to secure recognition from some employers and reasonable benefits for workers. But such is not always the case and overblown rhetoric becomes counter productive.
While it is difficult to envisage a collaborative approach replacing the old hostilities, nevertheless it must be recognized that in the current dispensation a reduced level of confrontation, without abandoning principles, might be a useful strategy. Employers must be persuaded to understand that recognition of trade unions will bring benefits. To this end trade unions must modernize their approach and take on board issues such as discipline among workers, theft, absences, the burning issue of productivity and other measures to ensure that employers’ concerns are dealt with. They must satisfy the employer that a unionized workforce will bring benefits, a hard sell under any conditions, but it has to be started. It is in exchange for these that the objective of organizing more workers will be achieved.
Trade Unions must understand, and hopefully the GAWU Labour College will recognize in conducting their classes, that because of the existence of unemployment, the optimum conditions do not exist for organizing workers. And once organized, the services of trade unions to their members ought to expand by providing not only contributing funeral benefits but post retirement medical insurance, additional retirement benefits and other measures to supplement the representation given to workers in order to encourage greater unionization. (www.conversationtree.gy)