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labor Supporting Guyana’s Sugar Workers

The history of the sugar workers in Guyana and their union GAWU is one of international solidarity. Today, however, many of the ties which once united unions in Canada, Britain, and the US to Guyana have disappeared. The current struggle against closures and privatization of the sugar industry in Guyana are an opportunity to rebuild solidarity in the fight against austerity everywhere.

The same ties which link companies from Canada to Guyana don’t just link those companies exploitative practices—like Canadian owned Omai Gold Mine which was responsible for Guyana’s worst environmental disaster—they can also link together the struggles against those practices. The current struggle against privatization and closures in the sugar industry in Guyana is at its core a battle against austerity, no different than the current struggle against the privatization of Hydro One in Ontario or the perpetual fight against cuts facing Canada Post. All battles in the fight against austerity, wherever they happen, have the potential to generalize successful tactics and strategies far beyond where those battles are fought. This exchange is why international solidarity matters and is much more than just an act of charity.

Steel workers in Greece showed this when they expressed solidarity to their counterparts in Egypt during the Arab Spring: “Dear colleagues: Those who fight for their rights might lose, those who do not fight have already lost.”

The history of the sugar workers in Guyana and their union GAWU is one of international solidarity. In 1977 when faced with having their wages reduced to pay for the newly enacted export tax the union struck and was met with support fromdock workers across Britain whose trade unions refused to unload any ships which carried Guyanese sugar.

Today, while many of the same ties which once united unions in Canada, Britain, and the US to Guyana have disappeared, the reasons they formed haven’t changed: resisting austerity. The current struggle against closures and privatization of the sugar industry in Guyana are an opportunity to rebuild those ties and exchange tactics in the fight against austerity everywhere.

Save Wales Estate

In early 2016, the Granger administration released the ambitiously titled,“The Good Life Beckons” budget. Despite its promises, Guyana’s sugar workers do not feel included in the “Good Life”; in January the government announced that by October the Wales Sugar Estate will be closed down and up to 2,500 workers could lose their jobs. In response, alarmed sugar workers all over Guyana engaged in protests and strikes to oppose what is seen as an attack on all sugar workers. Their instincts were proven right when the government announced in February the“consolidation” of LBI Estate: threatening to effectively close it down and move its workers to Enmore Estate, which is unable to absorb the 850 displaced.

According to GuySuCo, as of 2014, “The sugar industry remains the largest employer for the country with 16,000 workers, 300 suppliers and about 100,000 persons indirectly dependent on its factories.” For a country with a population of under 800,000 and an even smaller work force, the loss of 2,500 jobs will reverberate throughout the nation and especially at Wales. As one worker explained, “When the factory is not working the place is empty. When the estate grind the place is bright. The community is affected a lot when sugar is slow.” This shows the devastating effects of the proposed closure of the Wales Estate.

The Politics of Race and Class

A casual observer of the dynamics of racial politics in Guyana may see the attack on the sugar workers (who are primarily Indo-Guyanese) by the APNU-AFC government (primarily supported by Afro-Guyanese) as another salvo in the country’s ongoing competition between both racial groups. But a closer examination of the situation in Guyana since the APNU-AFC came to power in 2015 shows that the government has been indiscriminate in its attacks against the Guyanese masses.

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The aforementioned “Good Life” does not extend to the primarily Afro-Guyanese Guyana Teachers Union which, following the wild-cat strike at Brickdam Secondary School, are now holding their ground after the unsuccessful attempt of the government to lock out the workers and students by scattering them to other schools. Also, negotiations by the Guyana Public Servants Union  (GPSU), representing mostly Afro-Guyanese workers, for a cost of living wage increase have gone unheard by the APNU-AFC administration and President Granger has even insulted the workers by suggesting a merit pay scheme. The President disrespected the public servants by saying, “If they want to be lazy they will get a lazy person’s salary.”

Under the guise of a cleanup campaign, the government has displaced the primarily Afro-Guyanese vendors who made their living outside of Stabroek market. To this day, the government has not provided an adequate space for all of these vendors thereby ruining their livelihoods.One relocated vendor aptly summed up the fate of those cleared from outside Stabroek Market: “Another three months in here is death.” The APNU-AFC’s actions show that both Indo and Afro Guyanese workers are under attack.

Austerity Attacks

The majority of Guyanese people struggle to make a living and the “Good Life” budget and other policies aim to take even more away from the working masses. By giving less to the people and demanding more concessions, the government seeks to balance their budget on the backs of the working class. This is called austerity. The current government, like all the other post colonial regimes in Guyana, sees itself as accountable to their backers in Washington D.C. and London, not to the masses. Walter Rodney explained the dynamics behind this process: Anything that goes to the petty-bourgeoisie by way of so-called material benefits must come out of the accumulation that is being made by the masses. It is part of the surplus value that is being squeezed.

Applying Rodney’s framework to the present, we see Granger’s administration squeezing the masses by attacking government employees such as the sugar workers and teachers while charging vendors for selling outdoors. These actions are in line with President Granger’s plan for the country. In 2011 in an attempt to woo the business community, Granger declared at a private sector business luncheon: “I would like to get out of state-owned media, state-owned petroleum distribution, state-owned sugar. I don’t think this is the concern of the state… I don’t think there is any place for state ownership of those things anymore; certainly not under David Granger.”

The privatization of state-controlled industries will lead to massive lay-offs. For Granger’s government this means saving on wages and pensions. For the Guyanese masses, privatization means mass unemployment and a further deepening of the economic crisis which has led to the highest per capita suicide rate in the world and one of the highest emigration rates as well.

The APNU-AFC government and President Granger are not currently bold enough to try to privatize the government industries all at once; instead they chip away at them little by little. The chisel has fallen hardest on the sugar workers because the government feels that they are not risking the loss of political support from Indo-Guyanese sugar workers and their unions who are traditionally supporters of the opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP). The government would be more cautious in the state-owned bauxite industry where the workers are predominantly Afro-Guyanese. Make no mistake however – layoffs and privatization will come for all state-owned industries, and all Guyanese must stand in solidarity with sugar workers now to show Granger and the APNU-AFC government that an injury to one is an injury to all.

Which Way Forward?

The sugar workers all over Guyana have downed tools and held protests to oppose the closure of the Wales estate. Unfortunately, these brave actions risk being isolated if the struggle is kept within the confines of Guyana’s traditionally racialized politics, as embodied by the PPP’s stranglehold on the leadership of their unions. The flipside of this arrangement is that the leadership of traditionally Afro-Guyanese unions in the public service and bauxite industry are in thrall to the Granger administration.

The austerity attacks by the government have dealt a huge blow to the racial divisions in labor, however. This was evident on May Day 2016 when Guyana’s two competing union federations held a joint rally for the first time in decades. Significantly, almost all speakers berated the government for their attitude towards labor and stood in solidarity with the sugar workers and even approved a motion opposing the closure of Wales and LBI estates and the privatization of sugar. This was a step in the right direction but the union’s leaders’ haven’t backed up their words with mobilizations of their membership.

The true power of the working class, especially the unionized working class, lies in their ability to withhold their labor. In response to the government’s attacks on the sugar workers, vendors, and public sector workers, a general strike is needed. If the balance of forces does not favor a general strike at this time, it is important to talk about the need for a general strike. This could be a demand the workers could rally around to force their leaders to confront the government as opposed to the policy of labor peace on display at the May Day Rally.

Many unions around the world have expressed solidarity with Guyana’s sugar workers. This international solidarity and Guyana’s isolation from its Latin American neighbors point to the need for the Guyanese workers to ally with the masses of oppressed and exploited people around the world, especially its Caribbean and Latin American neighbors. A victory by the sugar workers can serve as inspiration for workers who are struggling against similar austerity attacks.

The fight to save the Wales Estate has united workers across the sugar industry. To defeat austerity, it can and must do the same across racial and national divides.

Victory to the Sugar Workers!  No to Privatization! Down with Austerity! 

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