The Labour Movement

Evolution, Intervention, Stagnation, Transition: Guyana

Clark University Graduate School of Management

International Labour Relations

Professor Gary N. Chaison

Tarique I. Nageer

Spring 1998


The Cooperative Republic of Guyana is located on the northeastern coast of South America. Its neighbors are Venezuela to the west, Brazil to the south, Suriname to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the north. Guyana measures 82,980 square miles (215,000 square kilometers), about the size of Idaho or the United Kingdom. The population is comprised of East Indians (51 percent), Africans (30 Percent), Mixed Heritage (14 percent), and Amerindians (4 percent). Christianity is the largest religion affiliated with 50 percent of the population, Hinduism comprises 33 percent, while Islam makes up 9 percent.

Christopher Columbus discovered Guyana in 1498 and it was at that time inhabited by Amerindians (Native Americans). Sir Walter Raleigh traveled to the territory in 1595 and in 1616, the Dutch established a permanent settlement. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the colony changed hands often. "Guiana" was the name given to the area sighted by Columbus in 1498, comprising modern Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, and parts of Brazil and Venezuela. The Dutch settled in Guyana in the late 16th century, when the Amerindians welcomed them as trading partners. However, colonial government and exploitation of the Amerindians--and later of African slaves--followed. Following brief interruptions by the French and British, Dutch control ended when the British became the de facto rulers in 1796. In 1815, the colonies of Essequibo, Demerara, and Berbice were officially ceded to Great Britain at the Congress of Vienna and, in 1831, were consolidated as British Guiana.

Following the abolition of slavery in 1834, thousands of indentured laborers were brought to Guyana to replace the slaves on the sugar cane plantations, primarily from India but also from Portugal and China. The British stopped the practice in 1917. Many of the Afro-Guyanese former slaves moved to the towns and became the majority of the urban population, whereas the Indo-Guyanese remained predominantly rural. A scheme in 1862 to bring black workers from the United States was unsuccessful. The small Amerindian population stills live in communal settlements in the interior.

The peoples drawn from these diverse origins have coexisted peacefully for the most part. Slave revolts, such as the one in 1763 led by Guyana's national hero, Cuffy, demonstrated the desire for basic rights but also a willingness to compromise. Labor disputes in the period following emancipation showed similar characteristics. The development of organized labor was led by H.N.Critchlow, the father of local trade unionism. Racial disturbances between East Indians and blacks erupted in 1962-64. However, the basically peaceful nature of the Guyanese, contributed to the subsiding of racial tensions.

After nearly 150 years of colonial rule by the British, British Guiana was granted Independence on May 26, 1966. British Guiana was renamed Guyana, an Amerindian word meaning Land of Many Waters, and gained its status of a Republic on February 23, 1970, the anniversary of the Cuffy Slave rebellion. Guyana became a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, the Non Aligned Movement, Organization of American States, and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

The Government

The Government is a hybrid of the Westminster (parliamentary) and Philadelphia (presidential) systems. Legislative power rests in a unicameral National Assembly. There are 53 members chosen on the basis of proportional representation from national lists named by the political parties. Regional councils that are elected simultaneously with the National Assembly elect additional 12 members. The President may dissolve the Assembly and call new elections at any time, but no later than five years from its first sitting. The President appoints and supervises the Prime Minister. The President is not directly elected; each party presenting a slate of candidates for the Assembly must designate in advance a leader who will become President if that party receives the largest number of votes. Therefore any dissolution of the Assembly and election of a new Assembly can lead to a change in the Assembly majority and consequently a change in the Presidency. Only the Prime Minister is required to be a member of the Assembly; however in practice, most other ministers are also members. Those who are not, serve as non-elected members, which permit them to debate but not to vote.

The highest judicial body is the Court of Appeal, headed by a Chancellor of the Judiciary. The second level is the High Court, presided over by a Chief Justice. The President appoints the Chancellor and the Chief Justice.

For administrative purposes, Guyana is divided into 10 regions, each headed by a chairman who presides over a Regional Democratic Council. Village or city councils administer local communities.

The Labour Organization

Currently the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) is the holding organization for 22 affiliated unions with an aggregate membership surpassing seventy thousand. However, before the trade unions were organized under one umbrella, "workers in many sections of British Guiana were engaged in bitter struggles with employers and the colonial government." (Gopaul: 17)

On November 28, 1905, the dock workers at the waterfront stopped working to protest poor working conditions and inadequate wages. They were accompanied by other workers in Georgetown and at nearby sugar plantations. Clashes between protestors and the colonial police resulted in the death of eight individuals and the conviction of several others. On September 25, 1906 the dock workers at Bookers Wharf went on strike for three days. This action was met with replacement workers. On January 4, 1917 employers resisted a proposal from employees which would reduce the workday from 12 hours to 11 hours. The ensuing strike ushered in the first form of collective action as a delegation headed by Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, the father of trade unionism, met with the Chamber of commerce. The British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU) was formed on January 11, 1919.Critchlow headed the organization which did not gain recognition until one year after the passage of the Trade Union Ordinance. Thus, on July 21, 1922 the British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU) became the first trade union in the then British Guiana. The formation of the BGLU was a significant occurrence for Guianese workers. Wages were being reduced while the basic costs of living were increasing. From 1922, workers became more aware of their rights and were demanding more from their employers and the society that held them as a colony. In addition to wage reduction, workers sought rent reduction and other benefits. As workers continued to demand more, more trade unions began to emerge. 1939 registered fourteen unions. Among these unions, the Man Power Citizen Association (MPCA) which was formed as union number three on 5 November, 1937 was a strong organizer among sugar workers. In it's first five years, some twenty thousand workers enrolled. The MPCA was seen as "their long awaited savior and a victory for sugar workers and trade unionism generally."(Chase, 1964:85 90)

The MPCA was able to gain recognition from the sugar planters but it was soon discovered that a member of the MPCA was on an employer's payroll. There was a lack of confidence in this union and in 1947, the Guiana Industrial Workers Union (GIWU) was formed. GIWU later changed its name to the Guyana Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU) and has become very active in advocating for the rights of workers. Before this, the BGLU, the British Guiana Congress of General Workers, the Moulders and Mechanics and the British Guiana Sawyers Union organized and registered the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in British Guiana for the first time on April 8, 1941. The TUC attracted more unions and soon Dr. Cheddi Jagan, the respected treasurer of MPCA resigned due to "his failure to articulate this organization and to make it a militant instrument to struggle for the rights of sugar workers."(Chase, 1964:126) Thus, the MPCA became a significant anti Jagan and anti-PPP activist.

Labour and Politics in Guyana

British Guiana was relatively peaceful until 1943 when Cheddi Jagan, a self proclaimed Marxist, returned to Guyana after seven years of study in the United States. He and his wife Janet, an American, formed the People's Progressive Party (PPP) with the goal of achieving independence through an anti-colonialist and a Socialist agenda. The radical PPP won a majority of the parliamentary seats contested in a 1953 general election. Jagan was elected premier and the "PPP introduced and passed a Labor Relations Bill, providing for union recognition and for settling questions of union representation by tallying the votes of workers at the production point."(Radosh: 394) The MPCA and British sugar planters both resisted the passage of this legislation. However, before the bill was ever implemented, British troops were sent to Guiana. The constitution was suspended and all elected ministers were dismissed. The government of Great Britain announced that it had suspended the constitution of Guiana "to prevent Communist subversion of the government...The faction in power has shown by their acts and their speeches that they are prepared to go to any length, including violence, to turn British Guiana into a Communist state."(Radosh: 395) In 1957, the popular PPP again won a majority of votes in a democratic election. Another government was formed and this time there was no foreign intervention. After the PPP victory in 1957, Harry H. Pollak, the AFL-CIO Associate Inter-American Representative paid a visit to Guiana at the request of the Trade Union Council (TUC), an arm of the MPCA. Mr. Pollak stated that " attempts were being made to dominate the free trade union movement." (Radosh: 397)

After the 1957 election, the PPP party split into two factions. With foreign influences campaigning against Marxist Jagan and a struggle for power occurring as the colony fought for independence, political factions "made anti-Communism their main plank...All the parties directed their attacks against us…British Tory M.P., Anthony Jershaw, said a PPP government would keep out foreign investors and Nigel Fisher declared that he did not believe that the British would work with me." (Jagan, The West On Trial: 185) Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, a former PPP leader now headed the People's National Congress (PNC). This party was composed mostly of Negro laborers in Georgetown, middle-class businessmen, and more of the urban population. The character of this party focused on the interests of mostly black urban dwellers whose agenda differed from those of the mostly rural, poorer, Indian sugar workers who continued to support the PPP. The TUC was a close supporter of this party but this did not prevent its members from supporting the PPP. In 1961, the PPP again won the election but had less control due to the party split. It was at this time that the opposition to the PPP from anti-Communist interests became accelerated.

AFL-CIO and US Foreign Policy

In the post-World War II era, fighting communism and defending the United States of America from the reported evil communist forces took center stage. Instead of aligning themselves with social change in Europe, Latin America, and Asia, "the AFL and CIO union leaders offered their support to any type of anti-Communist regime. Direct agents of American unions helped to overthrow the democratically elected Socialist government of Cheddi Jagan in Guyana."(Radosh: 24)

American Labor was given the first mechanism for anti-Communist activities in the Latin American labor force through the formation of the Inter-American Confederation of Labor (CIT), and later the Inter-American Regional Organization of Worker (ORIT). ORIT "supported Burnham over Cheddi Jagan in Guyana…To many Latin Americans, this looks like ORIT is an instrument of the U.S. State Department." (U.S. Senate Survey: 9) Unions affiliated against Jagan were affiliated with the International Trade Secretariats (ITS). The ITS was a federation of trade unions operating in related industries. George Lodge, the former Assistant Secretary of labor for International Affairs(1958-1960) explained that "because of their flexibility, cohesion, and independence, they are especially effective anti-Communist organizations in the so-called neutralist areas."(Radosh: 399) Lodge used an affiliate of the London-based Public Service International (PSI), the Arnold Zander led American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to assist in the organizing activity and direct assistance to developing countries. Zander and the PSI served as a cover agency for the covert Central Intelligence Agency operation in Guiana.

In 1963, Jagan introduced a new bill that would allow the Ministry of Labor to certify unions as the agents for specific groups of workers. Jagan argued that the act would allow workers to freely change unions because a Trade Union Council led board and business leaders prevented this. The TUC and businessmen argued that the board would be composed of government leaders and thus be under the control of Jagan. In April before a general strike staged by MPCA leaders was called, Howard McCabe, a prominent American who represented the PSI Secretariat visited Guiana and held all-night meetings with MPCA leaders.

As the strike began, significant violence occurred. Afro Guyanese committed violent acts against Indo Guyanese who were automatically considered pro-PPP supporters. The anti-Communist and anti-PPP labor leaders vowed to continue their strike to topple the Jagan government. "To gain this goal, some thirty to fifty thousand to $130,000 US dollars per week was spent to force Jagan to retreat and capitulate."(Meisler: 133-138) This involvement of the CIA and Labor to topple a Government was confirmed by a report from the London Times "Insight" team. The CIA funded Zander's Union by funnelling funds from the Gotham Foundation in New York. The TUC and MPCA worked with the PPP opposition and thus were a ready aid to the CIA operation. The CIA not only funded the Union activity but additionally through under cover operatives helped to organize anti-PPP strikes in 1962 and 1963. (Insight, Sunday Times :I,3) As Dr. Jagan stated, "In April 1996, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., admitted that he was sorry for what he had done thirty years before, and that 'a great injustice was done' to me. As President John F. Kennedy's advisor, he had advised in 1962 that I be replaced in government by L.F.S. Burnham through a change in the first-past-the-post voting system to the list system of proportional representation, what the then British Opposition leader, Harold Wilson, had called a fiddled constitutional agreement." (Jagan, Forbidden Freedom :116)

When the decision to grant Guyana her independence was made, the British and American goverments ensured that the PPP and Marxist Jagan would not gain power. Through proportional representation, the PNC was guaranteed electorial victory. For nearly 28 years form 1964-1992, the PNC led by Burnham until his death in 1985, and Desmond Hoyte, his successor, ruled Guyana in dictator-like fashion through regularly fixing elections. "The PNC controlled the TUC and pseudo unions were created by the TUC to manipulate and control votes. Burnham charged that the TUC and the government should do all collective bargaining for wages and salaries. In 1989, a strike restored collective bargaining power to unions." (Interview: 3-7-98) In October 1992, Guyana celebrated its first internationally recognized free and fair elections with Cheddi Jagan, the leader of the PPP and a reformed marxist gaining power.

Current Situation

The Trade Union Recognition Bill (TUR)

The political bug of the late President Jagan was the Trade Union Recognition Bill which has existed in some form or another since 1953. This Bill when approved in 1953 was the impetus for the British Government to send in troops, suspend the constitution and end a strike which supported the passage of this bill. In 1964, the Labour Relations Bill intoduced by the Jagan led PPP government resulted in a strike and the withdrawal of the bill. The most recent version of the trade union recognition bill was presented to Parliament in November 1994. The bill required that employers recognize unions that meet a certain criteria."Prerecognition strikes were discouraged by fines on unions and individuals who engage in unauthorized industrial action, including strikes, work slow-downs and sick outs. The bill also provided a formal mechanism to resolve inter-union rivalries over bargaining rights. Monitoring and enforcing the law would be carried out by the Ministry of Labour and a recognition and certification board comprised of government, trade union, and industry representatives. The Board would also redefine what is necessary to be recognized as a union." (Foreign Labor trends :5)

According to Mr. Seepaul Narine ( Exhibit 2), the General Secretary of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU), before the passage of the recognition bill, Union certification and membership gathering was based on the strength of the unions. Additionally, before, some companies would recognize unions but fail to bargain with unions. Now, there is a specified grievence procedure, and cumpulsary bargaining with employers and unions so long as unions are recognized. The new law allows the Ministry of Labour to survey and poll employees to certify unions. (Interview : 3-7-98) The collective agreement as usual deals with conditions in the workplace. Some of the contents of a recent Timber Company agreement include:

1. Terms of Engagement

2. Terms of Employment

3. Appointment

4. Wages

5. Payment of Wages

6. Attendance

7. Hours of Work

8. Overtime

9. National Holidays

10. Vacation Leave

11. Vacation Allowance

12. Leave for Sickness

13. Leave to attend Trade Union Seminars

14. Leave to participate in recognized national sports

15. Maternity Leave

16. Jury Duty

17. Transportation

18. Incentive and Piece Work rates

19. Discipline and Disciplinary Action

20. Grievance Procedure

21. Promotions

22. Right to Transfer

23. Health and Safety

24. Training

25. Union Activities

26. Benefits

27. Community and social development

28. Wage Rates

29. Shift Premiums

30. Guarantee Pay

31. Ambulance Service

32. Christmas Bonus

33. Grocery Arrangements for Forestry Workers

34. Access to Telephone

The trade union movement in Guyana played an integral role in the sturggle for independence. The close ties, which existed between the TUC and the ruling PNC party, aided the unions during the majority of the Burnham era. Today, union membership continues to remain divided between the sugar workers who primarily are Indo-Guyanese and those who work in the mining and civil service being mostly Afro-Guyanese. The fragility of the racial and ethnic tensions in guyana is very evident in the trade unions. In 1994, the "TUC president, Mr. Lincoln Lewis, an afro-Guyanese, attacked and accused the PPP administration and traditional PPP aligned unions. He accused the PPP Government of trying to discredit him and called them racist. Additionally, he declared war on the national Association of Agricultural and Industrial Employees (NAACIE), a growing, primarily Indo-Guyanese union. Mr. Lewis charged that NAACIE was 'poaching' members to a TUC affiliate, GB&GWU at Omai Gold Mines Limited." (Foreign Labor Trends :4)


Unions and the political parties they support, continue to be a staple in the Guyanese workforce. Additionally, the political divisions continue to be mostly racially motivated. In a recent election held on Decemner 15, 1997, the PNC has failed to recognize the validity of the elections and has not acknowledged the PPP government as the legitimate winners. Race was a calling card for violence and tensions in the country were exacerbated. Until Guyanese can control their racial differences and use this in a positive manner to better the country, race, politics, and as a seemingly natural progression, trade unions will continue to be intertwined. Unions need to concentrate on their founding goal to represent workers. Political involvement came to fight colonialism. Now, the best interest of unions and the country would be to have unions work for the benefit of their members and concentrate on dealing with employers.

Exhibit 1

List of Guyanese Unions (Interview: 3-7-98)























* = Pseudo Unions

Exhibit 2

Background of Seepaul Narine (Interview: 3-7-98, in person, Georgetown, Guyana)

Mr. Seepaul Narine was born at Enterprise, East Coast Demerara. His father was murdered in the 1964 distrubances. Seepaul grew uo in Kitty, Georgetown with his paternal aunt. He worked on the sugar estates and worked his way up the ranks to become a project forman and eventually a shop steward in GAWU. He joined GAWU full time in 1984 and worked as a field officer at Lenora estate until its closure in 1986. After woking in the grievance and communication departments, Mr. Narine assumed the role of General Secretary of GAWU in 1997 with the responsibility of negotiations and collective bargaining.

Mr. Narine has been educated in Cuba, Barbados, Moscow, and at Florida International University. Additionally, he has represented GAWU at several conferences worldwide.


1. Chase, Ashton.(1964) A History of Trade Unionism in Guyana. (New Guyana Company Ltd., Ruimveldt, Demerara, Guyana.)

2. Gopaul, Nanda K.(1997) Resistance and Change: The Struggles of Guyanese Workers (1964-1994) with Emphasis on the Sugar Industry.(Inside News Publications Inc., New York)

3. Insight. "How the CIA Got Rid of Jagan," Sunday Times, London. April 16, 1967, Pg. I, 3.

4. Interview. "Mr. Seepaul Narine on March 7, 1998, GAWU General Secretary"

5. Jagan, Cheddi.(1994) Forbidden Freedom.(Hansib Publishing Limited, London.)

6. Jagan, Cheddi.(1966) The West On Trial, The Fight For Guyana's Freedom.(Seven Seas Publishers, Berlin)

7. Meisler, Stanley. "Dubious Role of AFL-CIO Meddling in Latin America." (The Nation. February 10, 1964, Pg. I33-I38.)

8. Radosh, Ronald.(1969) American Labor and United States Foreign Policy.(Random House, New York)

9. U.S. Department of Labor. "Foreign Labor Trends, Guyana. 1994-1995" (Bureau of International Labor Affairs.)

10. U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Subcommittee on American Republics Affairs. "Survey of the Alliances for Progress, Labor Policies and Programs."(90th Congress, 2nd Session, July 15, 1968, Pg. 9)


Copyright © 2001, Tarique I. Nageer, Revised November 16th, 2001