THE BEGINNING OF THE MPCA
A serious economic crisis affected Guyana between 1930 and 1935. This was part of the worldwide crisis which followed the stock market crash in the USA in 1929. Hundreds of rural people moved to Georgetown to search for jobs and were willing to work for very low wages. Many of them displaced the regular workers on the docks, and this often led to clashes between the displaced workers and those who took their place.
Unemployment continued to grow in both the rural and urban areas. In the sugar estates there were numerous strikes to protest the low wages, the long working hours and the poor living conditions provided for the workers. In explaining this situation, the chairman of Bookers, the main sugar company, reported to his directors in London that the strikes were organised by "communist agitators".
Out of this labour situation, a second trade union, the British Guiana Workers' League, was formed in 1931. It was led by A. A. Thorne, a Barbadian by birth, who had earlier participated in the work of the British Guiana Labour Union. In 1933, Dr. Jung B. Singh, a member of the Legislative Council, became the union's senior vice-president. The union concentrated its activities mainly in representing the interests of factory workers of the sugar estates, municipal workers in Georgetown, and ward-maids at the Georgetown Hospital.
By October 1938, seven more unions were established. Among them was the Man Power Citizens' Association (MPCA) led by Ayube Mohamed Edun. This union, registered in 1937, provided, for the first time, organised leadership for the sugar workers, but its popularity did not grow until after the Leonora sugar workers' strike in 1939. There was a steady flow of sugar workers into its ranks, and by 1943 it became the largest trade union with more than 20,000 members.
In addition to Edun, prominent members of the union included Charles R. Jacob, a member of the Legislative Council, and Eleanor Sewdin who was vice-president in 1939 and treasurer in 1940. Sewdin was the first woman to hold such a high position in a national labour organisation.
Even before the formation of the MPCA, Edun was already well known nationally through his very critical newspaper articles in which he championed the interests of the sugar workers. These articles were published in his newspaper, the Guiana Review. He continued his writing after he founded the union, and most of his articles were also published in the Labour Advocate, which became the official organ of the MPCA.
Edun's work on behalf of sugar workers was readily recognised by the Government. In 1943, the Governor, Sir Gordon Lethem, nominated him to the Legislative Council as an unofficial member to represent the interests of the Indian workers in the rural areas.
Despite the MPCA's popularity and membership strength, the sugar companies at first refused to grant it recognition as the bargaining union for the sugar workers. Usually, the Immigration Agent General was involved in settling labour disputes on the sugar estates, but by 1938 this task became the responsibility of the Local Government Department headed by a Commissioner of Labour. It was not until March 1939, after the Leonora disturbances, that the Sugar Producers' Association (SPA) gave official recognition to MPCA when it signed an agreement with the union for the peaceful settlement of disputes.