There’s an old saying that once is an accident, twice is a coincidence and three times is a pattern. But what about when it happens worldwide? All at the same time? There’s never really been an official “season” for striking, but this year it appears that mid-May through June might need some sort of an official designation.
The striking season kicked off in Guyana where cane farmers not only protested about low pay and lack of holiday benefits from GuySuCo, but they also became disenfranchised by their own union. The country’s sugar industry has fallen into a pattern where every time there’s a pay negotiation, the union calls for downing of tools, workers go on strike and then they stay on strike until there’s been a deal made.
This kind of negotiating tactic typically only works once in a while and as a last resort. But when it becomes a pattern, it reflects negatively on the country’s overall production efficiency. GuySuCo and Guyana in general are already suffering from worsening crops and shrinking production, but these incessant strikes are getting in the way of turning the situation around.
But it’s the workers who seem to be the most frustrated, because when they strike, they don’t get paid, and their families suffer. The benefits are few and are a long time in coming, yet they have to pay union fees for what many are saying is poor representation with calls for a new body or organisation to take over bargaining duties that will see their lots improved rather than worsen as under the current system.
A few thousand kilometres to the south, stevedores at the Santos Port in Brazil decided to pull one of their famous 24-hour strikes at the end of May, but at the time the reasons for the strike or the demands they were making wasn’t clear. All that was clear was that liquid cargoes were continuing as normal but container ships—mostly sugar and coffee—were the most affected. In the end there was additional back up of sugar vessels, which has been steady at Santos for the past two weeks with 48 vessels on hold.
Perhaps, in a twist of irony, it was a good thing that the strike happened when it did rather than later in the season (though another strike is always possible) when sugar exports will pick up. Brazil has had a hell of a time with its crush so far this season due to rain, which has kept production low. That’s meant lower exports than would typically be expected so rather than a crazy backup that could see 60 or more vessels waiting to load, there’s “only” 48.
Now just this week alone there’s been strikes in both Australia and Zambia with workers downing tools in an effort to get better treatment from their mills. On the one hand, in Zambia, more than 3,000 workers are demanding a 35% wage increase. Zambia Sugar has declared the strike illegal and threatened to sack the workers who didn’t go back to work immediately. The company says that the workers’ union has backed them up and asked everyone to pick their tools back up, and ASAP.
On the other hand, about 50 workers at the Bundaberg Sugar mill meant to go on strike for just an hour to demand not money but the right to keep their work-life balance. The workers were concerned about changes to their rotations and worried about losing their days off. They were in for quite a shock when after their one-hour strike that they were locked out, not allowed to return to work because the company had brought in replacement workers for the rest of the shift.
After that shift, work went back to normal with the usual crew. Now discussions are meant to take place next week regarding the issues raised by the workers. At least in Australia the company seems to be willing to talk with the strikers, but in the US, the lock out at American Crystal Sugar has reached its 11th month. The company refuses to budge on its “final offer” even though the union representing locked out workers keeps bringing new offers to the table. About 1,300 have been locked out, more than 300 people have either quit or retired, and those not working have found the financial burden on their families growing.
American Crystal has no doubt seen the writing on the wall. It’s not unlike a siege on a castle: at some point the populace will starve and the castle will fall. For these strikers, it appears that they’re down to eating rats and it won’t be much longer until they buckle and the strike will come to an end.
So with strikes in sugar industries on four continents in just the past four weeks, it might appear that pressure is building up among workers to get better pay, better treatment and overall better standards of living. But on the flipside, it also appears that strikes don’t seem to have the same kind of power that they once did—nothing like the famous sugar strikes in Hawaii in 1946 that revolutionised labour relations in the state and changed the industry forever.
Now it appears that companies are winning more than workers, but neither side seems to benefit as a result. American Crystal has lost millions as a result of the lock out and farmers are getting about 20% less for their beet than farmers from other local co-ops as a result. With so much focus on sustainability in the sugar industry—labour relations key among those factors—it’s obvious that company-worker relations will need to evolve and quickly. But how?