By Dr Vishnu Bisram
Komal Chand, President of Guyana Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU) died following a bout with medical challenges. He died undergoing treatment in Cuba.
For over two decades, Komal led GAWU, that was founded by the late Dr. Cheddi Jagan. Although I am saddened with his passing and will miss him, I am also inspired by his work on behalf of the working class and the significant role he played in the struggle for the restoration of democracy in Guyana during the period of racist dictatorship.
Komal was also a politician who served in parliament for over two decades. But he made his name in labor unionism. He was a prominent and vociferous trade unionist distinguishing himself in activism on behalf of the downtrodden sugar workers. GAWU, the largest labor union of Guyana for decades, salutes this illustrious son. Sugar workers everywhere remember and honor this man who gave so much to people he cared for deeply. The country should be grateful to this man for role in opposing the dictatorship and in championing the rights of the labor class.
Komal, who hails from West Bank, Demerara, as he was popularly called, was a respected representative of working people. He was a man of conviction who stood up for what was right for sugar workers and for Guyana seeking to make the country a stronger, kinder, and better place through his politics and labor leadership. He recognized that the economic well-being of workers was tied to the well being of the nation as a whole. He believed that it was possible to get a better society, better community, better life, and better nation. He was a caring, socially inclusive, progressive, and forward thinking person. The country needs to return to these values now more than ever as dark clouds are gathering over the outcome of elections that threaten the fabric of the nation.
Komal cut his teeth in collective bargaining and trade unionism under Jagan’s tutelage. Jagan passed on the mantle of GAWU leadership to him after he became President of the country. Now with his passing, the union has to find a new leader.
I know Komal long before he became leader of GAWU and had the good fortune to interact with him on political developments countless times at his home, at GAWU Secretariat, at social events, and over the phone. We intimately discussed politics and he talked freely about PPP internal politics and his choice of Presidential selection. Regrettably, we did not get to talk about the outcome of the elections and the fraud associated with it. Whenever I visited his office on Main Street, he would share various pamphlets, newsletters, handouts, speeches as well as invitations to social functions.
The GAWU leader possessed a moral framework for his leadership. He never lacked courage to speak out against wrongs even in the political party he belonged and even voiced his view of internal party politics; he spoke his mind and laid out his position publicly not fearful of consequences.
Komal was a fine man who never lost his humility and simplicity speaking softly and gently even when in anger. He was an able administrator and affable union leader. Those who interacted with him said he was a wonderful human being who relentlessly fought for the working class and their families. He never shirked in his commitment at the bargaining table to get the best for workers. At a time when the term “collective bargaining” still held some meaning in Guyana, he was able to use the strength of GAWU’s large membership by employing a variety of tactics, including strikes, to gain better working conditions and wages for workers. Threats of de-recognition of GAWU did not cower him. Instead they motivated him to work harder for the working class.
His death has brought immense sorrow and gratitude to many for his contributions to the nation in the independence movement, the struggle for democracy, and representation of sugar workers. His death a month after a general election drew forth praise for his legacy, with even political opponents praising his contribution to the country’s development and to the struggle for democracy. He possessed enormous passion and courage as a labor leader to stand up for the working class. Like his predecessor Jagan who led GAWU, Komal had a labor heart. And aside from Jagan, I can’t think of any other labor leader so committed to their members.
He was also highly regarded among organized labor’s leaders across the country. He gave labor solidarity to other unions. He lent support to campaigns of other labor unions to improve conditions and wages for predominantly Black workers. Komal’s vision of social unionism and broad coalition building as well as of inclusive governance in the interests of a more just society could help revive not only the labor movement but efforts to move the nation in a more positive direction as we try to find a solution to the current intractable election impasse.
Labor is much poorer today because of Komal’s passing. He deserves the nation’s highest honors for distinguished serve in politics and for his representation of workers. The country will miss him, but his legacy will stand the test of time. I thank him for his contribution to the labor movement and the nation. Condolence to his family!