Wildcat Strikes as a form of Political Protest

A key feature of industrial life at  Linden has been the  high  propensity on  the  part of  Demba workers to resort to unofficial strike action m the  face  of  disagreements  between  themselves  and  the company.  In fact between 1961 and 1971, there have been approximately 41 wildcat strikes including 2 after the government’s decision to nationalize Demba. Since I have dealt at length  with this problem elsewhere, m this paper  I propose merely to  make a few perfunctory comments on unofficial withdrawal  of  labour at  Linden.

In the first place there is no doubt that the worker disenchantment, the structural basis of which has been previously detailed, has found expression in a series of wildcat strikes. Faced with an inadequate grievance machinery, unsatisfactory community facilities, an alleged disagreeable work situation and a union perceived as being inaccessible, weak and possibly corrupt, workers “struck first and negotiated later.”

The weakness of the union is of some importance because it was felt, for example, that if only the central executive (who are supposed to be the only people with the power to call a strike) were not headquartered in Georgetown 65  miles away .  many possible unofficial strikes may have been nipped in the bud. It is also possible that the worker perceptions of the remoteness of union authority may stem not only from the abovementioned factors but also from the fact that the colonial legacy has predisposed workers to have a dim view of the ability of their (local) representatives in general and especially in confrontations with the foreign company representatives.

In the second case it is very important to pay attention to the  nature of  strike action. Research on this question (14) has shown that workers in addition to displaying lack of  confidence  in the union’s ability  to represent them have also shown a remarkable degree of organization in implementing strike action.

One worker was heard to  remark  “when a foreman does you  anything nobody  should have to  tell you to strike.” Again, if workers in one section walk off their jobs a message is immediately  sent often using the company’s telephone) to other sections alerting them  of  the  possibility  for  concerted  withdrawal  of  labour.  This is often  facilitated  by  the  small  area  of  the  community  and  of  the company’s operation.

The foregoing then is most instructive for it suggests that workers in Linden have a history of collective action used to attempt to ensure compliance with their demands. I deem this an indication of political awareness in that it demonstrates workers’ awareness of the capacity of collective protest action for effecting changes in the system. But this is not all.

While it is true that most of the strikes occurred on the last 2 days of work week, possibly signifying a desire on the part of workers for a long weekend, it is also quite true that the cause of the strikes involved  significant degree of political awareness. Of the 41 strikes reported fully  26 were  occasioned  by disagree­ment with decisions taken by management which are usually considered the latter’s prerogative.

One notices from the Oxaal Report (15) that 19 out of the 32 strikes mentioned, were caused by worker disagreement with management’s decision to “transfer a worker”, or “demotion of a leading hand” , “dismissal of a Guyanese Geologist” and so on. Very few strikes were occasioned by a desire for “increased height pay” or “provision of transportation facilities from the mines” i.e. monetary considerations.

The point at issue is that by striking for the above mentioned reasons, workers seemed to be questioning what would normally be considered the unilateral right of management to make decisions concerning the   processes  involving  product ion.1 7  This  must surely  have  serious  post  nationalization  implications for

the company’s new administrators. It should also be noted that the fact that the strikes are all unofficial is in itself an indication of a desire for power by the workers since in theory only the central executive of the union are empowered to call a strike.

In addition to the use of the strike weapon as a means of ensuring structural change, Linden residents usually have a high voting turn out, according to official returns, and have shown themselves as very astute

social commentators. One should also note that the fact that 94 per cent of Linden’s population is of African  descent,  and   the   PNC,  the   party  in  power  derives  much  of  its support from  this ethnic group, must also have influenced the government’s decision.

It would then appear from the foregoing that the nationalization decision has been preceded by the existence of fairly sophisticated political awareness at Linden. There is little doubt  in my mind  that government knew and considered this, as well as the degree of anti -Demba feeling in arriving at  the decision  it did. But company and community factors were not all. There were, I am sure, others of a national dimension.