THE 80-DAY STRIKE
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The opposition forces launched a renewed drive in 1963 to overthrow the Government. This came about after the Government on 25 March published a draft of a Labour Relations Bill to be introduced in the House of Assembly. This Bill was almost similar to the one which was introduced in 1953 but which could not be enacted because of the suspension of the constitution. The Bill which was similar to existing American legislation was aimed at allowing workers to choose, by secret ballot, which trade union should represent them. If a union would be able to win the support of 60 percent of the workers in a particular industry it was to be empowered by the Commissioner of Labour to represent them. Other objectives of this proposed legislation were to end "company unions" and to establish democracy in the trade union movement.
From the inception, the TUC, which was now heavily anti-Government, opposed the Bill. The main reason for this was because the President of the TUC was also the President of the MPCA which was challenged by the PPP-backed GAWU for the right to represent sugar workers and was thus afraid to face a poll.
The TUC argued that the Bill would give too much power to the Government which would use it to control and destroy the trade union movement. It complained that it was only after the Bill was published that the Government sought its opinions. And despite the fact that the Bill was patterned after existing US legislation, the TUC and the PNC and UF branded it as "communist"! This anti-communism was now used as a pretext to oppose and overthrow the Government.
The ensuing protest demonstrations in Georgetown by the opposition parties led to violent attacks on Indians, seen as PPP supporters. The TUC joined in these protests even though its leaders were holding consultative meetings with the Government to amend some clauses of the draft Bill. At a number of PNC public meetings, TUC leaders untruthfully claimed that there was no consultation on the Bill.
However, in the period between the publishing of the Bill on 25 March to 17 April when the debate began in the House of Assembly, the Minister of Labour held meetings with the TUC and the employers' association, the Consultative Association of Guianese Industries (CAGI). As a result, the Government made 7 changes to the 13 clauses in the Bill. The Government also agreed to the TUC proposal for a Labour Relations Board to be established. Another TUC proposal for the enactment of a Labour Code was accepted by the Government.
During the debate in the Assembly on 17 April, Dr. Jagan stated that discussions with the TUC would continue; that additional proposals from the TUC would be incorporated in the Bill; and that the proposed legislation would not go to the Senate for final approval until all discussions with the TUC and the employers' association were completed. Despite this, the TUC announced that it was calling a general strike to begin on the following day.
On the same day, the Civil Service Association (CSA), led by Dr. Balwant Singh, announced that it would join the general strike. Dr. Jagan met with Dr. Singh and pointed out to him that the CSA had no grievances and that there was no need for that union to strike. Singh responded that the CSA was joining to express solidarity with the TUC.
The strike began on 18 April and, at first, the TUC refused to discuss its grievances with the Government. By this time, the TUC had established a close political connection with the PNC which was continuing to organise violent anti-Government demonstrations in Georgetown. On 26 April, Dr. Jagan asked the TUC to list its views on the amended Bill. It was not until a week later that the TUC submitted a paper with some new proposals, and in a meeting with the TUC on 7 May, the Government agreed to 13 of these. But it disagreed with three other proposals and in discussions, the TUC refused to compromise causing the talks to collapse.
By this time, too, the covert action of the CIA was very much in evidence, and strong support was given to the TUC by CIA-backed American unions which sent representatives and funds to buttress the opposition to the Bill.
During this strike which was to last for 80 days, the TUC obtained financial support from questionable trade union sources in the United States, from the British TUC and from the ICFTU. From the American sources, the TUC received over one million US dollars.
The Government then proposed that a tri-partite committee of Government, the TUC and the employers' association should work out recommendations on breaking the deadlock on the three crucial issues: appointments to the Labour Relations Board; the method of securing a poll; and the majority needed to certify a challenging union. The committee, after nine meetings, presented its recommendations to the Premier on 23 May. In subsequent meetings with the TUC and the CAGI on 24 May and 27 May, the Government declared that it was ready to accept the recommendations providing that in submitting names for the composition of the Board the Government can also submit names for consideration. When Dr. Jagan appealed for an end of the strike, the TUC bluntly refused saying that a number of issues still had not been resolved.
Dr. Jagan also met with Burnham to discuss the Bill. Burnham admitted that the strike was politically motivated, and even though he supported a similar Bill in 1953, he declared that the current Bill was not the cause of, but the occasion for war!
Even the British Government was aware that the strike was a political effort to dislodge the Government. Nigel Fisher, a Junior Minister in the British Government, visited Guyana in May and obtained a first hand impression that this was the case. Charges of "communism" were thrown at the PPP Government and open calls were made in the opposition media and at public meetings by leaders of the PNC and the UF, as well as the TUC, for the overthrow of the Government.
The Government suffered a set back when the Bill was allowed to lapse in the Assembly because of the open opposition to the Government by the Speaker, Rahman Gajraj. He allowed a motion on the extension of the state of emergency to be affected by a "filibuster", thus allowing it to be talked out by the opposition. Every opposition member was allowed to speak, and he studiously disallowed many Government members to make their presentations and refused to call for a vote on the motion.
Government members, during a break in the debate, told Gajraj that he was being unfair, and on the resumption of the session, he immediately ruled that he was suspending four Government members including Dr. Jagan from participation in the Assembly. The Government was thus robbed of its majority, and to prevent defeat if the Speaker should call for a vote on the Bill, the Government was forced to prorogue the Assembly.
The Labour Relations Bill thus lapsed but, despite this, the TUC refused to call off the strike. The TUC began to raise new issues; it demanded that the Bill should not be re-introduced and that those on strike must be paid for the period they stayed away from work. The Government opposed these demands and, to help bring about a solution, the British TUC, which had backed the strike, sent Robert Willis, a secretary of one of its affiliate unions, to Guyana to meet with Dr. Jagan and the TUC leaders. After intense negotiations, Dr. Jagan agreed that the Bill would not be re-introduced until at least four months had elapsed. He also agreed that the striking workers would be given a loan of two week's pay to be repaid over a six-month period.
The TUC, instigated by Howard McCabe, one of the TUC American unionist advisers, widely regarded as a CIA agent, refused these offers. Willis was highly annoyed and threatened to expose the TUC and to cut off funds from the ICFTU. Immediately, the TUC decided to end the strike.
The strike finally ended on 8 July. The TUC maintained that it was an industrial strike even though there was overwhelming evidence of its close links with the PNC and the UF in perpetrating acts of violence in the attempt to overthrow the Government. Ironically, the TUC claimed, when the strike ended, that it was not against the principles set out in the Labour Relations Bill, but what it opposed was the fact that the Bill would give unlimited powers to the Government on trade union matters.
The agreement reached on the intervention of Willis was that the Labour Relations Bill would not be reintroduced in its original or amended form until a tripartite committee made up of representatives of the Government, the TUC and a group representing Guyanese business community examine existing labour laws and make recommendations. The TUC demands for the ending of the state of emergency and for full payment for workers who took strike action were rejected by the Government.
Although this strike failed in its political objective of removing the Government from power, it gave the British a convenient excuse to further delay the granting of independence to the country. On the day before the strike ended, Duncan Sandys, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, arrived in Guyana for a nine-day visit to hold meetings with the Government and the political parties on the independence issue. But by then, he had apparently already made up his mind to delay independence. In a report he made earlier to the British Cabinet on 4 July he stated that independence should be withheld because the PPP was communist; the PPP Government was unable on its own to maintain civil order; and that the US administration's opposition to the PPP Government should be taken into account.