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Today the workers of Guyana commemorate another Labour Day with the traditional march and rally, which were not held for two years, given the pandemic. They will be out there demonstrating support for an organisation that not only played a pivotal role in ensuring rights in the workplace but one that also helped to shape the foundation of modern Guyana.
The trade union movement, going back to the days of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, has been the bulwark for the ordinary man and woman. It has created the environment for social, economic, cultural and political rights, and the resultant mobility in the workforce and wider society, which are enshrined in the Constitution and Laws of Guyana.
From time immemorial women have played important roles in the struggles and development of society. Regardless of which position they held, be it at the forefront of their men, alongside their men or behind their men, they have been there achieving industrial and societal change in the development of Guyana. Unfortunately, in many instances they remain unsung heroines of society or relegated to footnotes.
The early trade union movement saw the likes of Jane Phillips-Gay, Janet Jagan, etc., on the frontline. Phillips-Gay and Jagan were among the co-founding leaders of the original People’s Progressive Party.
Phillips-Gay was the defacto trade union woman leader during the 1948 sugar workers struggle on the East Coast of Demerara, and where five were killed by colonial police at Enmore Estate in what has become known as the Enmore Martyrs. Female nurses in Guyana who can serve whilst having a family, this was made possible under Janet Jagan. As British Guiana Minister of Health she removed the colonial barriers that hinder women from entering and remaining in the profession.
The next cadre of female trade union leaders included Agnes Benn-Kirton, Jean Persico, Vivian Surrey, etc. Surrey and Persico were educators in the leadership of the Guyana Teachers Union (GTU), both of whom subsequently became leaders in the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC). Surrey served as secretary of the GTUC Education Committee and spearheaded the trade union’s massive education programme in the 1970s and 1980s. Persico rose to the level of minister within the Ministry of Housing and Labour. Persico was also elected to the GTUC Executive and elected several times as head of the GTUC’s women arm (i.e. the Women’s Advisory Committee).
Benn-Kirton was a trade union advocate for cooperatives and self-help. She was subsequently appointed Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Housing. During this period of her political leadership the trade union, with the support of the Forbes Burnham government, was involved in the nation-wide housing development drive that produced turn-key houses and proper infrastructures such as roads, drainage, lights, water and sewage system for the working class. A housing scheme, on Mandela Avenue in the West Ruimveldt area, is named in her honour for the role she played in housing development.
The next generation was Avril Crawford who was elected President of the GTU. In the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) Attorneys-at-law Susan Moore and Chandrawattie Persaud were elected General Secretary. Moore was one of the leaders in the 1995 strike for increased wages and salary in the public service.
There were women who led at their unions and at national levels. Jean Schmidt, President of the Union of Agriculture and Allied Workers, was also elected Vice President, Assistant Secretary and Committee Member of the GTUC. Maureen Walcott was elected President of the Guyana Postal and Telecommunications Workers Union (GPTWU). She fired up the GPTWU and led several protests for improved working conditions. Gillian Burton Persaud was also elected President of the GPTWU and was first elected female President of the GTUC.
The prominent incumbent women leaders are Eslyn Harris, General Secretary, GPTWU, and Principal Assistant Secretary, GTUC. Her trade union colleagues define her as a shrewd negotiator. Under her belt the Judiciary- after years of struggle with successive governments to uphold a right- ruled former GT&T workers were entitled to receive their pension. She was also part of a team that recently inked a Collective Labour Agreement with GT&T which includes improved working conditions.
Corretta McDonald was recently elected General Secretary of the GTU, is the incumbent President of the GTUC and Member of Parliament in the A Partnership for National Unity and Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) coalition. She has led teachers in many protest actions for improved working conditions, such as salary and non-salary benefits, safety and health for teachers and their guardians during the pandemic.
Women have contributed to the trade union struggles and ideals for improved working conditions, respect for their labour, real wages/salaries , safety and health; and at the national level for improved standard of living through better infrastructures, education, health, economy, governance, amongst others.
To our female trade unionists, from two sisters, we encourage and support you in your various roles. We recognise and applaud you, whether named or unnamed, because it takes strength and determination to be counted amongst the warriors for equality, justice and development. Most importantly, what is a society without its women? Onward, Upward, May Women Ever Go!