Date: Sat, 22 May 1999 23:55:04 -0500 (CDT)
From: (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: LABOUR-GUYANA: The Struggle Moves to Another Level
Article: 65222
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <>

/** ips.english: 538.0 **/
** Topic: LABOUR-GUYANA: The Struggle Moves to Another Level **
** Written 9:04 PM May 20, 1999 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **

The Struggle Moves to Another Level

By Bert Wilkinson, IPS, 20 May 1999

GEORGETOWN, May 20 (IPS)—Members of the 24 unions which fall under the umbrella Guyana Trades Union Congress have joined the thousands of civil servants who have been on strike for the last three weeks to press demands for a 40 percent pay increase and to protest Tuesday's police shooting of 17 persons.

Several stores in the capital, Georgetown, remained closed Thursday and heavily armed police in pickup trucks are patrolling the streets.

The TUC's move to join the strike by government employees came just hours after the Janet Jagan administration backed down from taking the pay dispute to arbitration, calling it dangerous to the national interest and as about 10,000 civil servants marched peacefully through the streets of Georgetown to pressure government into meeting their demands.

The government has said however, it is prepared to continue talking with the unions, but the TUC says the shooting of the 17 persons by police Tuesday evening has changed everything.

Led by union leaders and sometimes nurses dressed in their uniforms, the strikers would each morning assemble at the east Georgetown headquarters of the Guyana public Service Union's (GPSU) office for briefings from labour leaders or invited speakers and then begin their peaceful march through commercial Georgetown, sometimes singing hymns as they go along.

Unlike opposition-organised protests against alleged racial discrimination last year, not a single shop owner was forced to close his or her doors through fear of vandalism nor had any member of the public complained about being harassed by the hundreds of government clerks, customs officers, national insurance staff and postal workers marching through the streets.

But everything changed Tuesday evening when riot police, dressed in full battle gear, fired teargas and shotguns into a crowd of protestors, injuring at least 17.

The shooting took place on the city's extreme western waterfront where some strikers had gone to prevent a small group of customs officers who had refused to join the protest from processing goods.

A standoff ensued for more than two hours. Police apparently lost patience after then, moving in to disperse the crowd and firing teargas.

Police said the group was forcibly preventing the officers from working and they had moved in only after officials at a privately- owned wharf had asked for assistance.

Prior to Tuesday, police had helped to maintain peace by escorting the protestors each day through the city and by ensuring traffic was never seriously disrupted.

Now all this has changed.

In the aftermath of the shooting, protestors lit small fires, later put out by units from fire service headquarters nearby, under a hail of stones hurled by young men not originally part of the protest.

And now there is every indication that what began as a purely industrial form of protest may degenerate into full- fledged political action in this already racially-divided country with a population of 750,000.

Opposition leader Desmond Hoyte, who had addressed civil servants at union headquarters earlier this week, went to the scene of the shooting warning that the situation could worsen.

The struggle goes to another level. You can't shoot at unarmed people, he said.

Until Tuesday, all opposition parties had kept their distance from the strike by doing nothing more than urging the Janet Jagan administration to end it by at least meeting demands for a 40 percent increase halfway.

Government says it can only afford a 4.6 percent increase.

Following Tuesday's events, the GPSU threw open the door to involve political support by urging everyone to join in the march Wednesday against the murderous actions of the Guyana Police in opening fire on public servants conducting a peaceful picketing exercise at John Fernandes Wharf.

Observers say that if political parties, particularly the main Opposition People's National Congress (PNC) join in the protests this week, it is likely to turn into a racially-charged situation.

The PNC is supported mostly by the Afro-Guyanese population while the ruling People's Progressive Party (PPP) draws the bulk of its backing from the East Indian community.

And as the strike drags on, mail boxes remain empty as postal workers are in the picket line and thousands of students remain at home as teachers, striking for the first time in 15 years, are holding firm that they too must be given a 40 percent increase in salaries.

The main government-run Georgetown Hospital is also closed and patients have been transferred to private hospitals with government promising to pay the bill.

It is a very serious situation and those are some of the kinds of steps we have had to take, says Claude Marks, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health.

But, according to Rakesh Seetaram, a jeweller, it is up to government to change the situation.

Government should bring the strike to an end by negotiating seriously with the unions and showing workers the real state of affairs, he said.

Until Tuesday's events, there were indications government was beginning to buckle under the weight of growing public opinion in favour of civil servants and pressure from pro-government organisations like the umbrella Private Sector Commission (PSC).

The PSC, its members angry that several containers of goods have been lying on the waterfront for most of three weeks, say the already weak Guyana dollar could be further threatened if key shipments of exports like rice remain in warehouses.

The Guyanese dollar is trading at about 180-1, a 40-point decline in the last year.

The PSC is also worried that taxes are not being collected.

This (the collection of taxes) is however, less important than the pile-up of exports, especially rice and manufactured goods which cannot leave the country to meet export orders, a statement from the PSC said.