Trade unions traditionally have played a major role in Guyana's political life. They began to emerge when Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow mobilized waterfront workers and formed the nation's first labor union, The British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU), in 1917. Since then, union members have become a significant segment of the Guyanese working class. It was from the trade unions that the PPP and PNC evolved and drew their strength.
Most union members work in the public sector, and trade unions historically have had close ties to the ruling government. Many of the twenty-four unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the main umbrella group for trade unions in Guyana, are formally affiliated with the PNC. Unions have the right to choose their own leaders freely, but in practice the ruling party has significant influence over union leadership. Government officials are often also union leaders. For instance, President Hoyte has been named the honorary president of one of the member unions of the TUC.
Government-labor relations have been marred by the PNC's attempts to control and silence the unions. This control initially was secured through the dominance of the Manpower Citizens Association, a pro-PNC union. When the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) entered the TUC in 1976, the size of the GAWU's membership (about 15,000) meant that it would be the largest union in the TUC, a status that would entitle it to the largest number of delegates. The PNC quickly contrived a system whereby GAWU ended up with far fewer delegates than it had previously been entitled to, and as such the TUC remained under PNC control. From 1982 to 1984, Minister of Labour Kenneth Denny and Minister of Finance Salim Salahuddin held very senior posts in the TUC simultaneously with their ministerial portfolios. In March 1984, the National Assembly passed the Labour Amendment Act, which stipulated that the TUC would henceforth be the only forum through which organized labor could bargain.
The Labour Amendment Act clearly was designed to stifle labor opposition to government policies. The law backfired, however, because reaction to it led to the ouster of the PNC-controlled labor leadership, which was replaced by leaders professing to be more independent. The main resistance to the PNC's control of the TUC came from a seven-union opposition bloc within the TUC, headed by the GAWU. Many unions, including some of the PNC-affiliated ones, began to criticize the government.
In the 1984 TUC elections, the seven-member reform coalition made significant inroads. The coalition candidate for TUC president ran against the PNC candidate and won. The changes in union leadership were a clear indication of the breadth of dissatisfaction with the PNC's efforts to roll back union power, and with Guyana's rapidly deteriorating economy. The seven disaffected unions left the TUC and in 1988 formed the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG).
The 1980 constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but the government owns the nation's largest publication and exercises indirect control over other newspapers by controlling the importation of newsprint. Administrations have also stifled opposition by making frequent charges of libel against the editors of opposition newspapers. The newspaper with the largest circulation is the government-owned Guyana Chronicle. The PNC's New Nation has the second highest circulation. Smaller newspapers include the PPP's Mirror, the independent Stabroek News, and the Catholic Standard, published by the Roman Catholic Church.
The government's influence over the press has lessened, and increased criticism has been allowed under President Hoyte. The opposition Stabroek News, which started out as a weekly, increased publication to six times a week in 1991. It has become widely regarded as the only reliable and nonpartisan source of news in Guyana. At about the same time the Stabroek News expanded operations, the PPP's Mirror was allowed to import new presses and increase its size from four to sixteen pages per issue.
At different times and from different perspectives, the churches of Guyana have been a source of opposition to government policy. In the 1950s, the Christian churches were vocal opponents of Jagan and the PPP's Marxism. These churches also drew international attention with their criticisms of the Burnham government in the 1970s and 1980s.
Much of the criticism of the national government has come from the Guyana Council of Churches (GCC), an umbrella organization of sixteen major Christian denominations. Anglicans and Roman Catholics, confident of foreign support for their positions, often have taken the lead. Some of the smaller churches with ties to the PNC have been instrumental in getting the GCC to soften its criticism. One sect, the House of Israel, has been reported to have close ties to the PNC. The sect's members were accused of disrupting a 1985 meeting of the GCC.
Hindu and Muslim religious organizations traditionally have played almost no political role in Guyana. In contrast to many Christian organizations, which receive support from adherents abroad, Hindu and Muslim leaders rely strictly on a local base. Religious leaders often are dependent on local political bosses, and the PNC has successfully recruited many Hindu and Muslim leaders into party organizations.
The long-standing policy of dividing constituencies into ethnic elements has prevented the establishment of a strong independent business organization. Fear of the Marxist PPP caused many middleclass Afro-Guyanese to support the PNC, beginning in the 1960s. Members of the business community who oppose government policy often do so through participation in the UF.
A movement began in the 1940s to press for improvement in socioeconomic conditions for women. The first formal women's organization was headed by Janet Jagan, wife of Cheddi Jagan, but it soon became merely an arm of Jagan's PPP. There is no national women's organization that spans ethnic groups. Rather, a women's group functions as part of the PPP, and a Women's Affairs Bureau of the ruling government is associated with the PNC.
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