THE LEONORA DISTURBANCES
(Close this window to return to the main contents)
The pressing economic conditions continued throughout the 1930s, and from time to time workers went on strike to protest their working conditions. The sugar workers in various parts of the country were most active in their strike actions.
On 13 February 1939 the firemen at the Leonora sugar factory called a half-day strike to demand a shorter working day. Their working day was eleven and a half hours. At that time, other factory workers usually worked between 9 to 12 hours a day.
The news of the firemen strike encouraged field workers of the shovel gang to strike over insufficient pay. After efforts by the manager and the District Commissioner to encourage them to resume work failed, the workers asked for the MPCA president Ayube Edun to intervene on their behalf.
Meanwhile, the strike spread to other sections of Leonora estate, and by 15 February, all the workers, including the cane-cutters who make up the great majority of the workers, were on strike. A large group of workers, armed with their agricultural tools, attempted to join the train to travel to Georgetown to meet with Edun, but the police prevented them from boarding. These workers then decided to walk along the railway line to Vreed-en-Hoop where they were stopped by the police from boarding the ferry boat to cross them over to Georgetown
However, a smaller group of field workers travelled separately to Georgetown and discussed their grievances with Edun, who then sent them to meet with the Commissioner of Labour. But this meeting between the workers and the Commissioner failed to bring about an agreement.
While that meeting was taking place, Charles Jacob, another leader of the MPCA, crossed over the Demerara River from Georgetown and addressed the large group of workers who had walked from Leonora. He listened to their grievances after which they travelled back to Leonora on the train late in the afternoon.
Jacob and Edun, that same afternoon, presented a list of the issues affecting the workers to the Sugar Producers' Association, and demanded that the MPCA should be granted official recognition to represent the sugar workers.
All factory workers joined the strike on 16 February, and in the morning many of them gathered in the vicinity of the factory and made a noisy protest. A police contingent under the command of Superintendent Weber arrived on the scene later in the morning. The policemen, armed with rifles and long, heavy greenheart batons, attempted to arrest a leader of the strikers, but were pelted with bottles and bricks by sections of the crowd. A clash between the crowd and the police followed, and some persons were injured. The police arrested five workers, but after protests outside of the police station by a crowd of other workers, they were later released on bail.
Meanwhile, the large group of workers protesting outside the factory, moved away and gathered outside the manager's home. The manager attempted to speak to them, but was pelted with bottles and bricks and he hurried retreated into his house. As the situation worsened, the District Commissioner sent an appeal to the MPCA president to intervene. However, Edun refused to go to Leonora unless the estate management granted recognition to the union.
Shortly after the manager was attacked, the crowd surrounded a police car and assaulted the two persons in it. Superintendent Weber threatened to shoot at the unruly strikers, but they still refused to disperse and threatened to burn down the factory. A policeman, in attempting to take away a stick from a striker, was then set up by the crowd. He managed to escape but was chased by the mob, and he ran inside of a nearby house. Some of the strikers ran behind him and severely attacked him with sticks. Three other policemen moved into the house to rescue their injured companion, and as other section of the crowd moved towards the house, the other policemen opened fire. The crowd then hastily dispersed and scattered in all directions. As a result of the shooting, four workers were killed and 12 others were injured. Some policemen received minor injuries..
A few days after the shooting, the Governor appointed a three-man commission of inquiry to investigate the causes of the disturbances. The commission heard evidence from 58 witnesses and lawyers representing the interests of the deceased, the management of Leonora Estate, the police and the British Guiana East Indian Association. The MPCA did not participate in the proceedings.
During March 1939, while the commission was preparing its report, the Sugar Producers' Association granted official recognition to the MPCA when it signed an agreement with the union for the peaceful settlement of disputes.
The commission of inquiry issued its report later in the month. It pointed to the fact that the workers had no other way open to them for settling their grievances except by going to the manager of the estate. The commission also was of the view that the union was unable to effectively represent the workers since its representatives were not given jobs on the estate. The report blamed the SPA for not recognising the union as the bargaining agent, but it also felt that the union should have sought permission to enter the estate to control the crowd. The commission felt that a stronger force of police should have been dispatched earlier to Leonora to disperse the crowd and to prevent any further build-up of strikers.
The police was cleared of all blame for the shooting. Meanwhile, the effectiveness of the MPCA was seriously hampered when it was discovered that one of its leaders was receiving substantial payments every month from the SPA. The union leader was expelled, but it did not dispel suspicions among sugar workers that other leaders were being "bought out" by the sugar producers.