Launching of Critchlow Week
April 29, 2012
Address by Lincoln Lewis
Greetings Brothers and Sisters. Today we begin the commemoration of Labour Week, under the theme Creating Appropriate Jobs Towards National Development. As customary we launch the week in the Parliament compound, in the presence of the statue of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, our National Hero and Father of Trade Unionism in the British Commonwealth. Labour, like the Civil Rights Activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, believes that “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” And since our lives are not about to end and our right to freedom of expression is protected in Article 146(1) of the Constitution, we refuse to be silent about the things that matter. As such Labour retraces Critchlow’s struggles and achievements that made it possible for each and every one of us, the need for this becomes urgent in the presence of growing threat to return Guyana to an era where opportunities and rights were the domain of the privileged few. So lest we forget, become complacent or allow others to think they can trample us and we will not put up a fight, we need to take the walk down memory lane and contextualise the importance of ensuring Critchlow’s legacies live for all and not a few.
Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow stands tall, not because he was over six-foot or because of his athletic prowess, but because of what he did for all of us, regardless of race, class, creed, gender and other differences. Having had to leave school at fourth standard to assume the role of breadwinner on the death of his father, by standards then and now he was a school dropout and this 13-year old would have been written off as someone who will amount to no good. Yet it was he who excelled and did outstanding things for this nation and its people. It was he who paved the way for modern Guyana. Before workers were organised and the right to association respected, Critchlow knew this was an innate desire of man, a right, and therefore sacred. When he led the first organised action with waterfront workers on 28th November 1905 to make known their grievances to the commercial class, there was no law protecting this right, neither was there the ILO Convention which came into existence in 1948- 43 years after! In 1917 he formed the British Guiana Labour Union. There was no law in British Guiana recognising the right of workers to organise and collectively represent their interests until 1921 with the Trade Union Ordinance- 16 years after he organised workers!
Today the right to form trade union and engage in collective bargaining is enshrined in our Constitution in Articles 147 (1) and 147 (3).
Critchlow lived in a society that was starkly divided along class, race, colour, religion and education lines. And according to these class divisions, Critchlow fitted into none. From all intent and purpose he was not supposed to be a leader, yet he became the Moses for the workers and the society. It was he along with other Caribbean leaders that in 1926 hosted the first Regional Labour Conference to chart a common course for the Caribbean people. This was 24 years before Guyana’s first mass-based political party, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP). It was the first effort at self government and regional integration. This Conference led to subsequent effort for a West Indian Federation, achievement of political independence, CARIFTA, CARICOM and others. He understood the power of unity around common cause, fought for the respect for the right to self determination, and understood the effectiveness of collective will.
Before there were Cheddie Jagan, Forbes Burnham, Peter D’Aguiar and others there was Critchlow and the British Guiana Labour Union. Under his leadership this union became the flag ship for principled position and unbridled agitation for the rights of the workers. Of course it led to clashes with the merchant class and political leaders but evidently he was not one who wavered or compromised his beliefs, nor the cause he stood for on the workers’ behalf. For him wealth was not material but the empowerment of the working class. And we know he died a man of little material means, in spite of the temptation or enticement to material wealth that would have come with him joining the ruling class and betraying his beliefs and commitment to the workers.
He must have known that the advancement of the workers was not only at the bargaining table with the employer but also in the legislature. For he himself sat in the Legislative Council to advance the workers’ voice and influence laws and policies towards their wellbeing. It should be said he was fired from him job and blacklisted from receiving employment for demanding an eight-hour work day, which is today taken for granted. His struggle for universal adult suffrage- one man one vote- set in train the toppling of barriers that hindered workers having a say in influencing their political wellbeing. His fight led to the removal of barriers of education and money being criteria to vote or run for office. It was Critchlow who made it possible for Cheddie Jagan to enter the legislature in 1947, because if it were not for him, the young and flamboyant politician could not have made it into the legislature because the status quo did not see Jagan as their equal. It was Critchlow who paved the way for the rank and file among us to be treated as equals and their right to self determination and involvement in decision making in the workplace and parliament.
Today as we look at the PPP, Guyana’s first mass-based political party, whose existence was made possible because of Critchlow, and who led the masses to think it is a working class party- the question becomes is this true or false? There is none who has ears to hear, eyes to see, nose to smell and the sense to feel who would say the struggles of Critchlow for equality across race, class, creed and gender are not being threatened. There is none with honesty who will deny that the struggles of Critchlow to give others a leg up in society are not being denied by the very people who during the colonial era would have never been where they are today, because they do not fit the colonial criteria.
And while it is said who much is given much is expected, the sad truth in our country, 107 years after Critchlow’s first blow for the rights of workers, we are confronted with an administration existing under the delusion that they are the new colonials. That there are the new plantoclass, the merchants, educated, coloured and racial significant as it was prior to 1947 when only these groups had voting privilege, walked the corridors of power, held senior positions in the public service and passed orders. They think they are entitled to deny others what is justly and equally theirs. They live under this illusion of grandeur and want us to accept this as the new norm. But I have news for them-because if it were not for Critchlow they would not been where they are today. And this building that they come to deliberate the nation’s business and think the people are their subjects, and not them working in service for the people, if it were not for Critchlow they could not have dream dreams, much less campaign and be elected to office. And because Critchlow made it possible for them they need to know that he also made it possible for all.
And today I speak to the government taking away of the subvention and grants to the Critchlow Labour College (CLC), the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) and the Women Advisory Committee (WAC). Thanks to Critchlow the Guyana Constitution has enshrined the role of Labour in national development. This is protected in Articles 38, 38A, 149(C) and 13 which mandate our involvement “to achieve the highest possible level of production and productivity and to develop the economy in order to ensure the realisation of…rights,” to “ensure that Guyana is a democratic State with a healthy economy,” and in pursuit of these achievements to play a role “in the management and decision making processes of the State.” Since these rights and responsibilities are constitutionally granted we would not discard or disregard them, neither will we let anyone take them away from us. The GTUC and its attendant arms have a right to exist and play its role in national development. The efforts by the PPP to undermine our civic duty by withholding our moneys will continue to be met with resistance from us. We are also aware that unions friendly to the PPP are in receipt of State funding. So this is not a question of refusal to invest in workers but this is a question where the government has taken a conscious discriminatory position that they will not invest in some workers.
It is thanks to the College named after Critchlow, many politicians, government and private sector workers benefit from education and training when he had very little, but dreamed of others having more. Thanks to the universal thinking of a man who inspite of having a fourth standard education, his dreams for the workers’ development, others can have the opportunity to a second chance that he didn’t have. Thanks to Critchlow, Minister Robert Persaud can claim a university education, having being taught by the College and given a second chance, he can debunk the notion that he was a dunce, a failure, would have amounted to no good, or have to live in poverty. Thanks to Critchlow, Bharrat Jagdeo and all the PPP leaders who though formerly poor benefitted from universal free education. For at the 1926 Labour Conference universal free education was on the agenda and an aspiration of the Caribbean leaders. Thanks to Critchlow and the GTUC, Cheddie Jagan, Donald Ramotar, Komal Chand and all the PPP comrades can proudly lay claim to trade union credentials.
These named comrades attended events at the GTUC under a different administration, proclaiming loudly their working class roots, party and agenda. They publicly disagreed and attacked the PNC administration and not once were our moneys taken away. Thanks to Critchlow we were allowed to disagree with the government and still received our moneys in keeping with our right to freedom of association, freedom to hold different opinions and have our voices heard on issues of national import. Many a times Cheddi Jagan stood at the GTUC’s conferences and lashed out at the PNC government. Never once was he silenced nor were our moneys taken away for associating with him or allowing him access for expression.
Rights are non-negotiable and if back then the non-negotiable of our rights were respected, today we will not compromise them in the fight to restore our subvention and grants. In the fight to restore what is justly ours.
The PPP today stands trial for failing to uphold the legacies of Critchlow. For engaging in acts that make Critchlow’s legacies the beneficiary of a few and not all. This is the party that promotes itself as working class but this party viciously persecutes Labour and transgresses the rights of workers.
The College received a state subvention from its inception in 1968. The 2004 National Budget approved a subvention but the Government refused to disburse the money. The subvention was returned in 2005, 2006 and was taken away in mid 2007. Behind closed doors the reasons given for the withdrawal have been personal, which I shall reveal shortly. Publicly, then Minister of Education Shaik Baksh and Labour Minister Manzoor Nadir gave conflicting information in parliament as to the reason for they denying us our money-one claiming that the College’s books must be audited before the fund was released and the other said the fund is withheld and will be reintroduced until there is unity in the trade union movement.
Let me set the record straight. The claim of trade union unity cannot stand because it was this government who made legitimate the divisions in the movement with the Trade Union Recognition and Certification Board (TURB) legally constituted to accommodate the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG) as a parallel group to the GTUC. Let me make it clear, right here and now, the College never had an accountability problem. From the inception of state funding the moneys were placed in a special account and every quarter it was audited by the Auditor General’s Office. The reason for such a decision is that though the College is a non-state entity, it plays a pivotal role in national education, and being in receipt of state funding we felt it was incumbent to account to the people for the management of their money. This system was in place when the then Auditor General was instructed by the Office of the President to audit the college’s private income. The Auditor General said the government’s request could not be executed since the law does not grant him the authority to audit private income. At no time had the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Labour or any state entity sought official engagement with the college on any matter relating to the subvention in as much as the college has reached out.
The college received a subvention because of its role in training, education and development, personal and national. It caters to remedial education, giving persons a second chance to write the Caribbean Examinations; meeting educational requirements to get a job; offers pre-requisite education to enter the University of Guyana, Cyril Potter College of Education and other tertiary institutions. It also offers trade union/human rights training and education, and professional education such as Project Management, Human Resources Management, Accounting, Shipping, and Marketing. The non-trade union programmes are offered at minimal costs to allow persons access to affordable education. This college is owned by the GTUC, with its main office in Georgetown and branches in Corriverton and Linden. Its objective is not profit making but the delivery of service to workers- past, present and potential; union and non-unionised, in their pursuit of development. The College has a Board that includes representatives appointed by the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Education.
The GTUC and WAC received yearly grants from 1972 which the PPP took away in 2002. Under the law the Auditor General audits the books of all trade unions. So the rumour of lack of accountability is built on falsification to mask discrimination.
Today we call on the political opposition to take this case to the National Assembly and let the PPP record in this compound, where were it not for Critchlow they could not have been sitting, why they do not want the College and GTUC to get their moneys. Let the PPP say to the workers and citizens of this nation if we are in a Cold War era, or admit to their discriminatory policies. Let the servants of this nation, who are under the delusion that they are masters of the people, tell this nation, why workers who desire training, education and opportunities for upward mobility, are being denied. Let this group of people who sit in the government side of the House from all educational background, race, class, creed and gender, and are there because of Critchlow’s struggles, tell this nation why others must not enjoy similar rights and benefits. Let them tell this nation by their presence in the House, the building they occupy on Shivnarine Chanderpaul Drive and other locations around this country where they exert influence, that Critchlow’s struggles were only for them and not his other descendants. Let them be given the opportunity to have frank discussion with, and make open confession to the nation.
Labour calls on the opposition to work with us in bringing our case to the House the way Critchlow, Jagan, Burnham and others did. Let us stand before the beneficiaries of Critchlow and have them tell us why other Guyanese must not have the opportunities they have, and our Constitution must not be respected to the letter. Let them tell us this giant of a man, who today is our national hero, that what he fought for was only for them and not for all. Let them in enjoying the sweat of Critchlow’s labour reject similar enjoyment for others or acknowledge that others are equally entitled.
The withholding of our subvention and grants is a political matter and it requires a political solution. As such we justly demand an accommodation in the National Assembly to make our case, the way it was done in days of yore and happens in other countries that respect the Legislature as the Peoples’ House. There will no retreat or surrender on this matter because as Cricthlow made it possible for those who do business in this House and in the Executive, and those who ascend the socio-economic ladder, so too he made it possible for those who aspire to get there and those who taxes and resources others are given the privilege to manage. And if Jagan, Jagdeo, Persaud, Ramotar and the PPP can enjoy freedoms and rights thanks to Critchlow, we will not let them deny others.
So brothers and sisters, if Critchlow stood up and represent workers in the Legislative Council then we too must not shy away from seeking and demanding political representation to advance our wellbeing. Remember the Constitution protects the right to self determination. Brothers and Sisters, if Critchlow and workers formed a delegation and made known their grievances before Governor Sir Wilfred Colet, then we too must not be afraid to have President Ramator hear our grievances, more so given the fact that he is notour Governor but our Chief Servant. Let us keep our boots on and stay in the battlefield until the war for the rights and freedoms of all are won! If Critchlow did it, so can we!