Labour issues have brought down many a government the world over while championing labour has ushered more than a few would be leaders into office.
Eric Matthew Gairy was a labour organizer and leader who was able to agitate estate workers in Grenada toiling for almost slave wages, with visions of a better life and a better future. He eventually became the second premier and the first prime minister of Grenada.
Sir William Alexander Clarke Bustamante was a Jamaican politician and labour leader who became the first prime minister of Jamaica. In fact generally in the Caribbean and indeed in Caribbean Diasporas, specifically in England massive and singularly successful labour uprisings have dappled history and influenced many political decisions over time.
Certainly if one casts one’s attention to the wider globe the actions of the labour movements have been some of the most telling in shaping the course of that particular country.
Labour issues are often linked directly to human rights and so whenever the labour movement agitates the debate is always about whether certain rights are being violated and whether workers in a particular society are being disrespected and unfairly treated.
Normally any administration in a democratic society takes labour issues quite seriously, understanding the potential of mass labour action to destabilize the government and cause serious damage at the next elections. Furthermore, the right of workers to protest for better working conditions and fairer wages are universally respected and most employers find it prudent to seek ways to ameliorate their workers’ concerns and find middle ground in meeting reasonable demands.
Grenada has had no shortage of labour issues over the decades some of which have led to national mobilization of workers and shaken government to the core.
Gairy’s mobilization of workers in the 1950’s led to significant adjustments in their treatment, wage increase and more rights and benefits.
Eric Gairy returned to Grenada from Curacao in December, 1949 to enter trade unionism and politics. In 1950 he founded the Grenada Manual & Mental Workers Union (GMMWU) and was deeply involved in encouraging the 1951 general strike for better working conditions. This sparked great unrest - so many buildings were set ablaze that the disturbances became known as the “red sky” days - and the British authorities had to call in military reinforcements to help regain control of the situation.
In 1951 Gairy founded the Grenada United Labour Party. He was elected as a representative of the Colony of Grenada’s Legislative Council in 1951, 1954, and 1957. Every major political of social movement in Grenada from then, in one way or the other involved the masses of workers and they were always cited as the reason for the action.
Certain categories of workers in Grenada are now once again faced with a situation where they believe they are in a fight for fair treatment. Workers represented by the technical and Allied Workers Union and the Public Workers Union have rejected and one-off $1,000 payment from government. They consider it inadequate compensation for three years of sacrifice; foregoing salary increases due to the Structural Adjustment Programme.
Junior ranks of the Royal Grenada Police Force are demanding that their wages be brought up at least to the same standard as teachers of comparable qualification. In all cases the workers are convinced that their requests are justified. They believe they have made sacrifices and have worked hard along the way and therefore fair compensation is justifiable.
Prime Minister Keith Mitchell has however explained that while he would love to give the workers what they are asking for, the country’s finances just cannot support it. He pointed out that the Fiscal Responsibility Legislation recently passed by Parliament, restricts the amount that the government can spend in certain categories of expenditure such as personal emoluments.
He said it is not that government does not want to honour workers’ requests, but cannot.
To do so, he said would be to jeopardise the full benefits of the Structural Adjustment Programme, including the millions in debt relief and funds that the country stands to gain after the last successful review.
Word out is that PM Mitchell does not intend to budge on this one, as he just cannot afford to. TAWO president Andre Lewis and PWU acting president Rachael Roberts have also vowed on behalf of the workers they represent, not to bend in their demand for “workers’ rights.” Is a major confrontation between labour and government looming?