By Poly Pantelides
TURKISH CYPRIOTS and Greek Cypriots gathered on Saturday to pay tribute to Pantelis Varnava, one of the leading figures in the miners’ strikes of the 1930s and 1940s that played a major role in improving workers’ conditions and securing their rights.
Varnava, a once active member of union PEO and leading official with party AKEL, died on Wednesday at the age of 97, and was buried on Saturday at Ayia Varvara church in Kaimakli.
Born at the now-occupied Famagusta mixed village of Pervolia, Trikomo in 1916, he went to work after graduating from primary school. He was employed by the American Cyprus Mines Corporation and took part in the Nicosia district’s Mavrovouni miners’ strikes of 1936, 1946, 1947 and 1948.
He played a leading role in unionising the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot miners to seek better wages, a cost of living allowance, and better working conditions including the 8-hour day.
The 1948 strike, a landmark in the history of workers’ rights in Cyprus, was jointly declared by PEO and the Turkish-Cypriot miners’ union, and went on for months from January 13 to May 1948. Authorities opened fire on the miners on March 8 and arrested and imprisoned 76 men and women for up to two years. Varnava described the experience in his book the “Common labour struggles of Greek and Turkish Cypriots”.
The months of protests had followed a decision a year earlier on the first of May 1947, when all two thousand miners in the area went on strike to celebrate workers’ rights.
“The rallies and marches which followed were unprecedented,” Varnava said in his retrospective.
“It was the first and only time in the history of the labour and trade union of Cyprus that a May Day celebration was organised by Greek and Turkish Cypriot Unions, with the participation of their women and children, and under such severe threats from the employers.”
In his retrospective, Varnava also noted the 1941 Limni Mine strike in Paphos that went on for 53 days and managed to secure for the miners an 8-hour day and wage increases.
But it was organising the unions for more wide-spread action to benefit all workers that Varnava worked for. In the fifties he worked towards social security benefits and health care. He was arrested by the English colonial government in 1955 alongside other PEO leaders and was imprisoned for 18 months.
He leaves behind his children Nitsa and Andrea, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.