The 135-day sugar industry strike

Click here to close this window and return to the main menu

Previous Chapter     Next Chapter

The strike ultimatum

On Tuesday, 23 August 1977, the PPP-backed Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU), the union representing field workers on the sugar estates, called out its members on a strike after the state-owned Guyana Sugar Corporation (GUYSUCO) refused to agree on a demand for profit sharing to the workers for the years 1974, 1975 and 1976. The overwhelming majority of more than 21,000 field workers on all the sugar estates immediately heeded the call to strike. Within a few days, all production activity on the sugar estates, including the manufacture of sugar in the factories, came to a halt.

The issue had its origin in the imposition of the sugar levy in 1974 when the industry was owned by foreign companies. The union since then had insisted that the levy should have been applied only on income remaining to the sugar producers after the workers had received their share of the profits based on the collective agreement on profit-sharing.

This issue continued to boil after the sugar industry was nationalised, and GAWU continued to raise it during many meetings with the management of the state-owned GUYSUCO. However, the sugar company felt that the union did not have a case, and after a further rejection of its demands, GAWU on 20 August 1977, by letter, issued a 72-hour ultimatum for an impending strike. The union also served the strike ultimatum on Prime Minister Forbes Burnham.

In its ultimatum, GAWU stated that it was calling the strike because "the workers have not yet received profit-sharing for the years 1975 and 1976 and were short paid their profit share for 1974". The union quantified the benefit owed to sugar workers as G$215 million (US$85 million) and claimed this amount from GUYSUCO.

It advanced the argument that if the Parliament had not imposed an export levy on sugar in 1974 to deploy into the public revenues of Guyana part of the unusually high prices enjoyed by sugar on the world market in 1974 and 1975, the former foreign owners would have made "super profits" and, consequently there would have been a greater amount of benefits available to sugar workers by way of profit-sharing. The union pointed out that the sugar levy imposed by the government on the industry since 1974 skimmed off the high profits, putting the collection into the state coffers without any settlement of the workers' outstanding claims for their annual bonus payments.

It was apparent that the government was expecting a strike due to this situation and had plans to counter such action. At its congress in early August 1977, it had passed a resolution "that an Industrial Court be set up by government to revise the labour laws concerning workers and that penalties be devised for dealing with industrial malpractices, particularly those perpetrated by trade unions. In this context government should authorise the formation of another union in the sugar industry as a means of allowing sugar workers the opportunity of benefiting from a trade union along socialist lines."

The first reaction of the umbrella TUC, of which GAWU was the largest member, was to request the union to suspend its strike action for 24 hours to permit efforts at conciliation, but GAWU ignored this request since it felt that GUYSUCO had no desire at that time to negotiate the profit sharing issue.

The decision to strike apparently surprised both of GAWU's industrial allies such as the National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees (NAACIE), the union representing office employees in the sugar industry, the University of Guyana Workers Union (UGWU) and the pro-worker Clerical and Commercial Workers Union (CCWU), since they were not fully consulted or alerted about the impending industrial action. The Working People's Alliance (WPA), regarded then as an ally of the PPP, was also taken by surprise. However, this faulty oversight was remedied as GAWU subsequently consulted and updated them on the strike activities on a regular basis.

Within the first few days, genuine efforts were made to end to the strike. NAACIE called a meeting of the three unions active in the industry - itself, the GAWU and the Guyana Headmen's Union (representing the sugar boilers and factory workers) - as well as the CCWU and the UGWU, and the meeting urged the TUC to intervene to end the strike "on the basis of a just settlement of the sugar workers' grievances."

Reaction from the government

The first response of the PNC government was to immediately label the strike as political claiming that it was a response to the PNC's outright rejection of the PPP's proposal earlier that month for a National Patriotic Front. The government presented the view that the PPP was stung by the rejection and was using the strike to flex its political muscle and launched stinging attacks on the opposition party. It immediately began a propaganda blitz, using the state-controlled radio and newspapers to agitate against the PPP on an openly racist basis by telling the public that the PPP and GAWU wanted "all the money in the treasury" for the sugar workers, overwhelmingly Indo-Guyanese, at the expense of the rest of the population. The radio propaganda, totally one-sided, included personal abuse on Dr. Cheddi Jagan and those who defended GAWU, including Dr. Walter Rodney whose party, the WPA, had declared strong support for the demands of the sugar workers and their union.

In its criticism of GAWU's demands, the government said that by the union's opposition to the sugar levy, the strike was not directed against GUYSUCO or against any matter over which the state corporation had control, but that it was a challenge the right of the Parliament to pass legislation and, inferentially, to coerce the government and the Parliament. In addition, it claimed that the collective labour agreement procedures were not followed and that the strike was used as a "first resort". It pointed out, too, that the demand for $215 million as the workers' share of the profits was twice the amount agreed as compensation to the foreign owners for the nationalisation of the sugar industry.

Repressive bills

The government then moved swiftly to put pressure on protest actions by the sugar workers. Just a week following the strike call, a meeting of the National Assembly was hastily summoned to pass two bills [Summary Jurisdiction (Appeals) (Amendment) Bill and another to reactivate Part II of the National Security Act] aimed at arming itself with additional repressive powers.

The haste with which the government brought two repressive bills before the National Assembly on September 1, 1977 was indeed alarming, since it suspended the standing rules, and rushed them through all stages, negating the rights of opposition members to have time to consider and examine then in detail. The bills were quickly passed by the PNC's two-thirds majority earned through the widespread rigging of the elections in 1973.

The result was that the two pieces of legislation gave the Government the right to cancel the basic rights of the people enshrined in both the constitution of Guyana and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

Although the Government claimed that the Summary Jurisdiction (Appeals) (Amendment) Bill was for the purpose of preventing hardened criminals from abusing the use of the right of appeal to stay out of prison, it was quite clear that an entirely different motive was intended. Magistrates were given the discretion to deny bail after the lodgement of an appeal by the convicted person, a power which they did not have before.

The bill was sinister in character and was used to cover up repressive acts against striking workers and their leaders, by giving the window dressing of legality. By preventing persons sentenced to imprisonment from being free after an appeal is lodged, many were picked up and given crude "justice" in the lower courts. Although there were provisions for bail, it was unrealistic to expect that this would have been given under the circumstances of wholesale arrests, in efforts to break the strike.

The purpose of reactivating Part II of the National Security Act, which gave the Government the right to detain without trial, restrict the movements of citizens and institute curfews, was mainly for the purpose of intimidation.

TUC intervention

As the strike continued, the regular congress of the TUC, on 22 September, 1977, named a committee headed by Ashton Chase of NAACIE, ex-Labour Minister Winslow Carrington and Kenneth Denny (both strong PNC members), as well as Cheddi Jagan and Ram Karran of the GAWU, to draft a resolution on the issue. The proposed resolution which received overwhelming support from the delegates, urged the GAWU to call off the strike on the basis that generally accepted and agreed terms of resumption should include the removal of scabs employed during the strike and an interim payment to the sugar workers. It also authorised the TUC to intervene in the situation with the government.

The TUC negotiators first approached GUYSUCO but the employer stubbornly refused to dismiss the scabs, one of the main demands of the TUC. The negotiators then appealed to the Minister of Labour, Hamilton Green, but he refused to intervene, claiming that the strike was "political".

Faced with this uncompromising situation, the TUC sent a strong statement to the Minister of Labour. It said: "The workers never anticipated that they would witness . . . a nationalised industry . . . . in a much stronger position than the industry had been under capitalist ownership, to show resistance to the acceptance of traditional terms of resumption and be allowed to remain steadfast . . . . while the country's economy suffers enormously." The statement added that this would lead to "frustration, lack of commitment and indifference on the part of workers stemming from the fear that if they go on strike, strike-breakers would be recruited and offered permanent employment. Such development would adversely affect the general economy of the country."

Unfortunately, the TUC failed to follow up further and no real action was taken by the TUC on any of the main issues. There was a widespread belief at this time that the leaders of the TUC, many of whom were also leading PNC members, were pressured by their party and the government into back-peddling on the matter. No doubt, this was the reason it did release to the public its statement to the Minister of Labour and refused to allow the GAWU to discuss the strike on the TUC radio programme broadcast on the state-owned radio.

These negative actions by the TUC caused alarm and frustration among the unions supportive of the GAWU and the strike expanded further when NAACIE called a two-week solidarity strike on 21 November 1977.

The sugar levy

It is necessary here to give the background of the sugar levy which became a main issue during the strike. The Sugar Levy Act was passed in Parliament by the government in July 1974. Under the Act the following levies were imposed on the sugar industry, then largely owned by two expatriate firms, Booker McConnell and Jessell Securities Limited:

(i) 55 per cent of the proceeds in excess of $359.00 per ton;

(ii) 70 per cent of the proceeds in excess of $521.00 per ton;

(iii) 85 per cent on the proceeds in excess of $625.00 per ton.

The government's rationale in imposing this levy was to offset the high costs of imported oil after December 1973. During the period 1973 to 1976, the cost of oil imports to Guyana rose astronomically from $48 million to $138 million. The sugar industry, a large consumer or oil, found that the price had tripled. The effect was the same in every other industry and prices of other essential imported inputs increased drastically.

Fortunately for Guyana, during the years 1974 and 1975, sugar enjoyed very high prices on the world market. The government, therefore, decided that since the nation was faced with a very high oil import bill, it would take advantage of the favourable conditions existing with sugar to offset the cost of imported oil. The government argued that if it had not taken this step, most of the profits from the sugar industry would have been shipped abroad; and the nation as a whole would have suffered as a result the high-oil-prices.

As the strike prolonged, the government agreed that if the levy had not been imposed on the industry, the sugar workers would have been able to share in larger profits, but posited that the ultimate consideration was whether it was more important for sugar to contribute to the well-being of the entire nation, including the sugar workers, or merely enlarge the money available to sugar workers over a short term period.

It also explained that if the contribution to revenue via the sugar levy were removed for the fiscal year 1974 and 1975 the Government's current budget would have been in deficit by $40.5 million and $62.0 million respectively because of the escalation of oil prices. In 1976, when the price of sugar fell, sugar's contribution to current revenue in the form of the levy dipped to 16.6 percent, but it still remained a vital source of government revenue.

The government also pointed out that sugar was of critical importance to the country's economy and was contributing about 20 percent of the GDP and was projected to yield 30 percent of the country's foreign exchange earnings for 1977.

The regime's counter-argument

In countering GAWU's demands, the government noted that any claim with respect to the periods 1974, 1975 and up to 25 May, 1976 could not legally be made against GUYSUCO which became a legal entity only on 26 May, 1976; and which was not the successor in title to the former foreign owners. Claims relating to these periods, it said, were legally enforceable only against the former foreign owners.

The government, however, agreed that the only period which had any relevance to GUYSUCO was its claim relating to period 26th May, 1976 to 31st December, 1976. But it asserted that profits earned during this period did not reach the level to permit the profit-sharing formula to be applied.

And to further deny the union any satisfaction, the government continued to insist that the strike was motivated by political rather than industrial considerations, and as such was not prepared to participate in any discussions.

Opponents of the strike

As the strike gathered momentum and garnered increasing local and international support, the government in its attempt to ridicule the sugar workers' struggle, encouraged the pro-PNC leaders of various trade unions and other organisations politically connected to the PNC to condemn GAWU's action. The Guyana Labour Union, whose president was also PNC leader and Prime Minister Forbes Burnham, was the first to do so. This union represented the waterfront workers who were engaged in loading sugar on to ships for export.

Others included the Guyana Public Service Union, which represented all categories of classified government employees, many of whom were pressured into "volunteering" on the sugar estates. The Guyana Teachers' Association also opposed the strike and raised no objection to the Ministry of Education for coercing many teachers to also "volunteer" for cane-cutting duties at weekends. And adding his voice was Harry Lall, the former president of GAWU, who in 1976 resigned from the union and also from the PPP to join the PNC. He condemned the strike and criticised the demand for G$215 million as being "impossible".

Harassment and the use of scabs

The strike was marked by widespread police harassment. More than 130 activists of GAWU and the PPP were arrested on flimsy excuses and most of them were charged for intimidation.

Incidents of police harassment were numerous. One striker, Lokie Narine of Blairmont, was charged for "public terror". After five weeks in prison, he was put on bail for $10,000. In many cases bail has been excessive, from $5,000 to $12,000 for simple offences. In West Berbice, Mansaran Persaud and S. Sakichand were arrested and, after being held for 36 hours, each was placed on bail of $1,000 (cash) or $2,000 (transport) and ordered to report once every week to the police station even though they were not charged with any offence.

In West Demerara, one cane scale representative, Goolgar, was arrested four times. A GAWU field secretary, Jeewan Persaud, was arrested, held for 24 hours, released and re arrested as soon as he exited the police station.

Two workers on strike, Amernauth and S. Prem of Blairmont, on charge of intimidation, were granted bail at $5,000 (each) or $10,000 (transport) on the condition that they give a verbal assurance to the magistrate that they would return to work.

A GAWU motor car was impounded at New Amsterdam police station on three occasions within six weeks, two times for "fitness", and the third on October 13, for suspicion of having stolen parts. These actions were of sheer malice since the police was fully aware that it was being used by the Honorary President of GAWU and Leader of the PPP, Dr. Cheddi Jagan.

And a van load of food contributed by PPP supporters for striking workers in West Demerara was seized by the police. Three separate quantities of foodstuffs for workers on strike were also seized in New Amsterdam and East Berbice as well as 39 bags of rice at Enmore.

The PNC regime also flooded the country with outrageous pamphlets insinuating that serious fires at the Burma Rice Mill, Guyana Timbers and Guyana Rice Board, as well as for the burning of sugar cane fields were the work of GAWU and the PPP.

These allegations evidently formed the basis of the punitive action the government had in mind. It was, therefore, convenient for it to declare that the strike was political so as to embark on total counter-mobilisation.

It recruited more than 6,000 scabs to take the places of the striking sugar workers. Most of them were unemployed Afro Guyanese and they were transported by trucks to the estates every day. They included youth hardly of working age - many of them even below the age of fourteen - and large numbers of unemployed women. Trade unions loyal to the PNC also encouraged their members to volunteer to cut sugar cane on the estates. At the same time, many state entities such as various Ministries coerced civil servants and teachers to "volunteer" their services at weekend. The army and other military and semi-military units, as well as the pro-PNC House of Israel religious cult were also deployed to the cane-fields. The country was flooded with the propaganda that these "volunteers" were carrying out their "patriotic duty" to save the sugar crop valued at "$146 million".

But not only Afro-Guyanese were recruited. It was apparent that the PNC was able to influence some Indo-Guyanese on the sugar estates to accept jobs as cane cutters. While the striking workers remained at home, many unemployed young men, relatives and friends of those on strike, accepted the readily available jobs in the cane fields. No doubt, this act of strike-breaking from inside the sugar estate communities, to a certain extent, undermined GAWU's efforts to maintain pressure on GUYSUCO.

However, the use of scab labour to cut sugar cane had a damaging result on production. Most of these new workers and "volunteers", who had no knowledge of the art of cane cutting, severely damaged the young shoots (ratoons) which propagated a new growth of the crop. This proved to have a detrimental effect on subsequent production of sugar in 1978.

The PNC government also continued, throughout the period of the strike, a massive propaganda campaign against GAWU and the PPP, as well as on the WPA and other organisations supporting the sugar workers' demands. It also refused permission to the union, the PPP and the WPA to hold public meeting in various parts of the country to effectively counter the PNC's anti worker propaganda.

The WPA, to its credit, helped to nurture solidarity for the sugar workers among the bauxite workers in Linden and elsewhere outside the sugar belt. And, despite the propaganda peddled by the PNC, most Guyanese viewed the strike as an industrial dispute and the sugar workers not only won wide moral support but were also viewed as the vanguard fighters against the PNC dictatorship.

International support for GAWU

As the sugar workers held their ground, even in the face of severe police harassment and victimisation, they won widespread international solidarity for their cause, and by the end of October, the Oilfield Workers Union of Trinidad implemented an embargo on petroleum shipments to Guyana. Since this action reduced supplies from Trinidad, the government was forced to request the Venezuelan oil workers' union, PEDEPETROL, to refrain from similar action in case additional supplies of petroleum were needed from Venezuela. Further solidarity was received from dockworkers in Great Britain who refused unload ships transporting sugar from Guyana. The Caribbean Council of Churches also announced its support for the strike and made a contribution to the strike fund.

GAWU complaints to ILO

In September 1977, GAWU complained to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that the repressive action on sugar workers by the government amounted to the trampling on trade union rights in the country. The union complained about the imposition of the two hurriedly enacted repressive laws, the arrest and detention of striking workers, the hiring of thousands of scabs, the unemployment of children, racial incitement through the state media, and the deployment of the army as part of the strike breaking apparatus. Further, the union complained about the curtailment of the distribution of food supplies to groceries in sugar estate areas, thus forcing sugar workers to purchase food items such as flour, cooking oil, split peas and other essential food commodities from government or PNC-controlled shops and cooperatives located in areas outside the sugar estates. It must be noted that during this period, the government centrally controlled food imports and their distribution to sales outlets and groceries throughout the country.

In a response to these charges, the government in a letter to the ILO on 17 October 1977 denied these accusations. Rationalising the imposition of the new repressive laws to curb lawlessness during the strike, it stated:

"When the PPP sensed that the strike call was likely to be ineffective, it introduced into the sugar belt a large number of thugs who began threatening, assaulting and otherwise intimidating peaceful workers who wanted to exercise their legal right to work. Moreover, the families of those workers wore subjected to intimidation; their homes wore stoned; and in some instances attempts to burn the homes of these workers were made. Additionally, malicious burning of young sugar-canes, the property of the people of Guyana, became frequent; and canes belonging to small peasant farmers and cooperative societies were wantonly destroyed by arson, thus bringing severe hardships and even financial ruin to many poor hard-working farmers. Other acts of sabotage were attempted against sugar factories, machinery, vehicles, and other property owned by the people of Guyana. The leadership of the PPP and union added fuel to this dangerous situation by wild incitements to violence. The situation, if allowed to remain unchecked, was in danger of degenerating into complete lawlessness."

On the charge of racialism, the government blamed GAWU and the PPP for instigating it, and preposterously claimed that "over 50 percent of the citizens who have volunteered to reap the sugar harvest without pay and save the country from total bankruptcy are citizens of Indian origin."

The government also deemed "as absolutely false the allegation that it has recruited youths under 14 years of age to cut cane, and insisted that "the law does not permit the employment of children who are under the age of 14 years."

It also glibly denied any complicity in directing the distribution of essential food supplies away from sugar estate areas, insisting that "the vast majority of distribution outlets is in private ownership, particularly those in the country areas which embrace the sugar belt."

On the deployment of soldiers to cut cane, the government said it could not "sit idly by and allow the employment security of workers and the economy in general to be put in jeopardy by reckless politically-inspired action." It declared that only 370 soldiers were deployed to work side by side with sugar workers who refused to go on strike. It also made the unfounded claim that out of the industry labour force of 21,981 workers, 10,550 workers did not go on strike.

And on the issue of hiring scabs, the government have this explanation: "The charge that the Government has been recruiting scabs is completely unfounded. The facts are that many workers never went on strike at all; many who had been convinced that the strike is irresponsible have returned to work and GUYSUCO has been recruiting workers in the normal way according to the traditional practice in the Industry at harvesting time. Historically, the average additional recruitment during this period amounts to 4,189. This recruitment takes the regular labour force to 26,000. This year the Industry, in the usual way, has employed 6,132 additional workers. Of this number, 5084 have traditionally in the past worked in the Industry, in the usual way. Thus, there are only 1,048 workers who can in any proper sense be considered "new" workers. The employment of this additional number will, in no way, jeopardise the jobs of the striking workers or of any other workers in the Sugar Industry for two reasons: (i) because of the steady decline in the agricultural labour force, the Industry has always had difficulty in maintaining a sufficiently large labour force; and (ii) GUYSUCO is now no longer merely involved in sugar but has been expanding and diversifying its agricultural activities, a fact which has been well publicised in the news media many months ago. Guysuco has assured the TUC that there is work for all. That GUYSUCO has been guilty of no impropriety and no breach of industrial practices in this respect has been conceded by the TUC."

End of the strike

The strike, which lasted 135 days, ended on 5 January 1978 when GAWU announced that it was calling it off. The union did not win any concessions, but with the TUC leadership vacillating and unwilling to confront the government on the industrial issues, it could no longer continue the action. It praised the militancy of the sugar workers saying that in their struggle against GUYSUCO and the government they "came out with their heads held high and seven feet tall". The statement added:

"Conscious of its responsibilities and faced with a heartless and ruthless regime on the one hand and a divided labour movement unwilling to take positive action on the other, GAWU considers that the continuation of the strike will not be in the interest of the workers and the nation. It is therefore ordering a resumption of work under protest and without prejudice to the stand taken by the TUC and GAWU on the issue of scabs. Notwithstanding the weakness of the labour movement, GAWU expects that the TUC will continue to pursue representations on the issues involved in the strike as agreed upon at its annual conference, and assures of its continued militant support of the principled support position of the TUC conference on the question of scabbing."

The strike certainly exposed the weakness of the TUC in taking strong principled positions on behalf of the workers. No doubt, this was due to the strong PNC influence on the leadership which caused it not to firmly press for the removal of the scabs, despite its strong position on this issue in September 1977. As a result, the regime not only retained the scabs at the end of the strike, but also honoured them. The state-owned weekly newspaper, Citizen, of August 25, 1978 reported:

"The curtain came down last night on the history-making distribution of certificates to volunteers who had armed themselves with cutlasses to defend the economy during the 135-days sugar strike last year. . . . Agriculture Minister Gavin Kennard referred to the volunteers as "heroes of the socialist revolution in Guyana" and expressed the hope that by their example and leadership they would motivate all citizens in this battle for the economic survival of our beloved country."

Nevertheless, the main long-term effect of the strike was the formation of an alliance of four unions - the GAWU, CCWU, the NAACIE and the UGWU as a "progressive opposition" grouping within the TUC. They eventually jointly carried out public campaigns against anti-working class measures adopted by the government and against the TUC to address many of these in a serious manner.

20 November 2008