Mass strikes in Guyana, 1917

Indentured labourers from Southeast Asia in the Caribbean

A short article about the mass strikes of workers in Guyana during World War I. Dockworkers walked out for pay increases amid wartime inflation, sparking nationwide strike action which won big improvements in pay and conditions.

As a result of the World War which broke out in Europe in 1914, essential imported food supplies became scarce, and prices of these commodities rose very quickly. Many merchants in Guyana were also involved in black-marketing, and this caused prices of foodstuffs to rise even more. But while prices were rising, wages remained stable, and this did not help in any way to improve the economic conditions of the people. Workers were very dissatisfied, and throughout 1915 and 1916 there were short strikes in Georgetown and on the sugar estates.

By the beginning of 1917, the economic situation had further deteriorated. Demanding increased pay and a shorter working day, wharf workers went on a ten-day strike from the 4 January 1917. The strike was also in protest against the rising cost of living during war time; in most cases, essential food items had doubled in price from the pre-war 1914 period to the beginning of 1917. Even in the period from January to October 1917, essential food items further increased in price from between 50 to 100 percent.

This strike was held in a generally peaceful atmosphere. Hubert Critchlow, who by this time was a respect leader of the wharf workers, led a three-man team to meet with the Chamber of Commerce to discuss the issues affecting the workers. Three days after the strike started, the employers agreed to a nine-hour work day and a 25 percent wage increase, but the workers did not agree on the latter. The strike therefore continued, and the employers were eventually forced on the 13 January to agree to most of the demands of the workers. The workers obtained the nine-hour work day, satisfactory increased wages, and overtime payment for work done after 5.00 p.m. The increased wages brought their earnings to between 72 cents to about $1.20 per day, depending on the type of work they carried out.

The strike on the wharves, in the meantime, had spread to other areas, as was the pattern on previous occasions. Garbage collectors went on strike on the 9 January, but their demands were quickly met. On the same day, workers at some saw mills stopped working, and after their employers readily agreed to their demand for increased wages, they returned to work.

On the same day workers of the Demerara Railway Company, the Ice Factory and the Match Factory also stopped working and demanded increases in wages. The strikes at the Ice factory and the Match Factory were settled quickly with workers receiving increases. But the price of soft drinks, produced by the Ice Factory, was immediately increased on the grounds that this was necessary to offset the increased costs of labour.

The railway strike lasted for one week, and it seriously affected movement of people and goods from Georgetown to the rural areas. Eventually it ended after all categories of railways workers were granted a 7 percent increase.

While all of this was happening, sea defence workers and road workers on the East Coast Demerara walked off the job after demanding increased wages. Some of them were granted modest increases while others who were on contract work were dismissed and replaced by new labourers, from among the growing pool of unemployed persons, at the old rates.

Meanwhile, non-indentured Indian workers on the sugar estates in Demerara between March and May also agitated for higher wages. This demand was taken up by "free" Indians employed at Plantation Golden Fleece on the Essequibo Coast in September. The intervention of the Immigration Agent General was necessary to bring about a solution in all these cases.

This strike fever gained momentum, especially since all workers were concerned over the rising cost of living and they felt that the demand for better wages was a just cause. The Government was obviously concerned about these stoppages, and tried as quickly as possible to examine Government workers' issues as soon as they arose. Thus, towards the end of the year when the Post Office and the Public Hospital workers protested, without striking, for higher wages, the Government immediately set up a committee to work out a satisfactory arrangement.

Taken from http://www.guyana.org/features/guyanastory/chapter95.html