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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 119 | Junio 1991
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Central America

Solidarismo: Anti-Unionism in Sheep's Clothing

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"Solidarismo seeks to co-opt, neutralize and dominate the working class, but in a persuasive and consensual manner, not through open coercion. And this form of covering up their intentions and trying to win over the workers is potentially much more effective and dangerous than the use of open force in which the interests and antagonism of the bosses are clear."
—"The Labor Movement in Guatemala 1986-88," Science and Technology for Guatemala (CITGUA), Mexico City, February 1990.


Throughout Central America, trade unions have historically faced repression by employers and rightwing governments. In Guatemala, for example, 134 union leaders were murdered or disappeared between 1981 and 1985. Other activists were arrested, beaten, shot at, kidnapped, tortured, threatened and driven underground or into exile.

Today, though clashes with owners and violent repression still occur, unionists throughout the region face a new and more insidious enemy: a business-sponsored movement known as "Solidarismo." The movement aims to create not class solidarity but harmonious relations between labor and capital at the workplace. The longer-term goal, according to Guatemalan Solidarista leader Rina Sanchinelli, is to foment "popular capitalism" by turning workers into owners. "The only way to defend the free enterprise system," she said, "is to help people become participants in it."

Solidarismo is "a way of combining the efficiency and individual freedom of free enterprise with the benevolence of a humanistic philosophy," its advocates claim. Solidaristas argue that social injustice is not a product of capitalism, but of unequal access to property. By becoming owners themselves, they say, workers will come to share the boss' commitment to increased productivity and will benefit from the resulting development of the enterprise. Solidaristas claim that salary increases cause inflation and the use of tax money for social spending fosters government corruption, while their system creates "new property for the poor without taking existing property away from the rich."

According to its supporters, Solidarismo also fosters personal growth. "It's a question not of having more but of being a better person," asserts movement publicity. Solidarismo is described as representing such values as dignity, equity, sincerity, generosity, cooperation, freedom, social harmony, work, fraternity, social conscience and a spirit of service. "Solidarismo is neither right, left nor center. SOLIDARISMO is on TOP!" brags one pamphlet.

Today, the Solidarista movement poses a serious challenge to unions throughout Central America. In Costa Rica, backed by a law giving it legal status, Solidarismo claims over 2,000 associations with some 200,000 members; 90% of all transnational companies in the country have Solidarista associations. The runner-up, Guatemala, has 300 associations with over 80,000 members. The movement has already spread to Honduras and El Salvador and is poised for penetration into Nicaragua.

Beginnings

The Solidarista movement was launched in 1947 by a Costa Rican named Alberto Martén who believed that workers' misery was based on their condition as wage earners. Martén proposed to free laborers by giving them access to property ownership within the context of a free market and limited government intervention, and sketched out a plan for the formation of "Solidarista associations" in workplaces. But by 1959, the Costa Rican movement was flagging, a victim of Martén's attempts to politicize it by founding a Solidarista party.

During John F. Kennedy's presidency, there was some discussion of promoting Solidarismo in Latin America through the Alliance for Progress as a means of combating the "threat of communism," but Kennedy himself rejected the plan, expressing doubts about its practicality. Not until the 1970s did the movement begin to take off in Costa Rica, through the combined efforts of a Solidarista employer—the owner of the La Gloria department store chain—and Father Claudio Solano, a Catholic priest who saw Solidarismo as a Christian alternative to leftist labor unions. Solano later became director of the John XXIII School, which, with the backing of employers and the Catholic hierarchy, began actively promoting Solidarismo through workshops and training sessions.

Given the predominance of capital with a modem outlook and a relatively weak labor movement narrowly focused on economic demands and ignorant of the dangers of Solidarismo, the phenomenon flourished in Costa Rica. By 1979, there were 100 associations, and in 1980, the Costa Rican Solidarista Union was formed with business support to coordinate the movement.

Solidarismo, Guatemala-style

While Solidarismo has its roots in Costa Rica, its history in Guatemala offers perhaps the clearest illustration of its potentially damaging effects on the workers' movement.

Organized labor makes up only 4% of the Guatemalan work force—less than 200,000 workers—and the inheritance of terror from the early eighties has severely stunted its growth. Many of the most experienced leaders were killed or fled the country and many organizations were destroyed in those years. With a 60% unemployment rate and the ever-present threat of violence, rebuilding the labor movement has been slow. Unions are further challenged by both the erosion of the formal sector where they had their base and the rapid growth of the hard-to-organize informal sector. In 1990 alone, the formal sector lost 141,000 jobs, according to Central Bank statistics.

Most of Guatemala's Solidarista associations are centered in major urban areas, though there are 11 on banana plantations. The largest percentage (29%) is found in industry, where there are 68 Solidarista associations and only 56 unions. Commercial and financial institutions are host to 27% of the associations, followed by 24% in services and 20% in the agroindustrial sector. Twenty-seven of the Solidarista associations are in transnational corporations. Because of legal restrictions, the movement has not yet penetrated the public sector in Guatemala, though it has elsewhere in Central America.

At each company with a Solidarista association, workers put between 5% and 8.3% of their salaries into a common fund matched by employers. The accumulated capital is used to provide services to members such as housing and other loans, lunchrooms, recreation centers, commissaries and medical aid. When the worker is fired or leaves the company, he withdraws his shares in the association, amounting to his contribution with its accrued interest and interest on the employer's portion. He also receives his legal severance pay.

In an effort to eliminate class conflict, associations typically sponsor sports and recreational activities to bring together workers and management and their families in a social setting. "They drink together, they plan activities together. It's like they were pals and the worker ends up thinking, 'That boss is a good guy!'" said one brewery union member.

As part of their plan to "make proprietors out of the proletariat," associations also invest in productive enterprises with profits divided among members. Banana workers in the eastern region of Izabal own their own train used for transport to the fields; Guatemala City Pepsi workers run a bottle-washing operation and make uniforms for the company; employees of the Antigua Ramada Inn own the vans used to bring guests to and from the hotel.

In most cases, such ventures take advantage of a captive market by providing services to the parent company. Despite propaganda about worker ownership of the employing company, only two Guatemalan Solidarista associations own stock in their parent enterprises. (Even in Costa Rica, the birthplace of Solidarismo, leaders acknowledge that the Achilles heel of their movement is its failure to give widespread worker access to stock ownership.)

Counterinsurgency

From the beginning, Solidarismo was closely identified with counterinsurgency in Guatemala. The first successful Solidarista association was founded in 1983 on the La Perla coffee and cardamom plantation in the conflictive northwestern region of Quiché. Guerrillas had executed la Perla’s owner in 1975 for his role in the torture and kidnapping of peasants in the zone, and the 9,000-acre plantation was attacked on a number of occasions. In an attempt to guarantee stability and the defense of the farm, the owner's son founded a Solidarista association and sold the workers 40% of the enterprise. He also initiated the country's first civil defense patrol, giving weapons to the workers to defend La Perla from the armed insurgency.

Former US Ambassador to Costa Rica Curtin Winsor claims that on one occasion some 200 La Perla Solidaristas fought off an attack by 120 guerrillas and that the plantation is now home to over a thousand anti-insurgent refugees. In 1986, the farm's Solidarista association contributed money and labor to build a road connecting La Perla with another Solidarista plantation and a neighboring community. It was inaugurated under the slogan "Communication and Defense," with the participation of high-level military officials. "Solidarismo has taken the wind out of the sails of the communist subversion which had almost achieved its destructive and criminal objective," said a representative of the Guatemalan Solidarista Union in his speech at the ceremony.

Union-busters

Guatemalan labor activists say they are at a serious disadvantage vis-à-vis the new associations. While unions face years of red tape to gain legal status, Solidaristas quickly get the official nod. With support from the employer, Solidarista associations have ample capital, easy access to resources and permission to meet during work hours. Besides, "If management is organizing Solidarismo, who's going to oppose it?" asked Guatemalan representative of the International Food and Beverage Workers' Union (UITA) Rodolfo Robles.

Solidarista leaders deny their goal is to destroy unions, but admit their movement will make them obsolete. "With Solidarismo, we don't need confrontation or a force to fight for our needs," said Geovanny Marroquín, Solidarista organizer on Guatemala's Atlantic Coast. "We will be able to get those benefits without confrontation. By natural law, things fall of their own weight. When something is not necessary, it is cast off," he added, referring to unionism.

Despite what leaders say, Solidarista associations have played a direct role in undermining labor organization in practice. In June 1987, union workers at the Guatemalan Lunafil thread factory occupied the plant when management tried to unilaterally impose obligatory 12-hour weekend shifts. After more than a year of occupation, an accord was reached. Management agreed to reinstate the 24 union workers still occupying the plant and respect their contract. But when the plant reopened, additional personnel were hired under different conditions and the owners brought in a Solidarista association. Non-union workers were given a wage increase, along with other benefits such as a cafeteria and a consumer cooperative that sold electrical appliances and other goods.

Union members say Solidarista affiliation is obligatory for new employees at Lunafil and that those who attend union functions have been fired. Closed circuit TV cameras keep a close eye on worker interactions on the shop floor. While the union still exists, it has not won any new members since the shop's reopening two years ago.

Solidarismo already had a foothold in the "Arizona" banana plantation in Izabal when the union struck in June 1986 over the firing of 27 workers. The owner provoked confrontations between the Solidaristas, whom he called "whites," and the "reds" identified with the union. Though there were sympathy strikes by 4,000 union workers on neighboring farms, Solidaristas acted as strikebreakers. Armed guards on the only bridge cut off communication with the outside world. The union had no way to win public support, while the Solidaristas flew to the capital on the owner's plane to tell their story to reporters. During the strike, the association boosted its appeal by setting up its own store on the remote plantation and arranging an exclusive soft drink franchise with Solidaristas at a local bottling plant. Union members were denied permission to shop at the store.

The strike ended after four months. Though the owner paid a high price—an entire crop of bananas lost—the union was broken. Some union leaders quit, others were fired and yet others signed up with a now-strengthened Solidarista association which new permanent employees were required to join.

Solidarista leaders say unions' own internal problems are responsible for their losses. But one aspect of Solidarista strategy has clearly been to focus on destroying militant unions. According to Science and Technology for Guatemala (CITGUA), associations have replaced unions in at least 17 Guatemalan workplaces. In another 18, the two types of organization exist side by side, with the union predating the association in the great majority of cases. Though the phenomenon has affected Guatemalan union organizations across the ideological spectrum, the left federation, UNSITRAGUA, has suffered the most from the Solidarista onslaught.

Costa Rica demonstrates a similar pattern. There, Solidarismo targeted the radical unions in the banana fields on the Atlantic Coast where 61% of strikes had taken place in previous years, as well as the unions in the strategic industries of the central valley.

Solidarismo has also penetrated widely in unorganized workplaces. Often these are companies like Guatemala's Pepsi bottling plant, which has prevented unionization with a mixture of paternalism and control. According to Jeremías Tórtola, the Solidarista president at the plant, Pepsi owners make it a policy to respond to workers' needs before they develop the bad habit of making demands. Unionized workers from nearby Coca Cola say every time they win a wage increase, non-union Pepsi also offers a raise.

As a result, Solidarismo has found fertile ground there. "Workers feel affection for the company," said Pepsi employee María Lisette Carrillo; "they identify with it." Those that don't and have tried to organize unions are reportedly dismissed.

Labor critique

Guatemalan labor leaders challenge Solidarista claims that their movement benefits workers. "It’s not a workers' alternative; it's a method imposed by employers to neutralize the unions and their demands," said UITA leader Robles.

Employers exercise virtual control over company associations. Their leaders, often appointed by owners, are invariably loyal middle-management employees. The president of the Solidarista association at the Pepsi bottling plant is a former marketing supervisor whose salary is paid by the company. Invariably, association concerns are limited to satisfying the immediate economic and consumer needs of their members; they do not negotiate contracts or discuss working conditions and wages with the company. Generally, associations sponsor grievance committees that resolve worker-management conflicts on an individual basis, thus avoiding more serious clashes that might produce generalized demands for change.

Though theoretically Solidarismo implies a joint effort by labor and capital, critics point out that in fact all Solidarista funds come out of the worker's pocket. Employer contributions are really just an advance on the amount of severance pay legally owed to employees when they are laid off. The Solidarista formula allows the company to enjoy a pacified and frequently more productive workplace at no extra cost to itself. Even benefits once won in collective bargaining negotiations and paid for by the employer are now covered by worker contributions to their Solidarista association.

Whether workers join out of management coercion, ideological conviction or simple economic need, Solidarismo has the same effect. It undermines the organization that defends workers' rights and substitutes one whose goal is the conciliation of labor and management interests. Workers are left without protection against arbitrary management action or a channel for their demands. UITA representative for Latin America Gerardo Iglesias says that, over time, workers in Solidarista workplaces lose benefits and salary increases are lower than with union representation.

Capitalist ideology

Solidaristas speak openly of their ideological goals: "To overcome the class struggle, achieve worker-owner solidarity, create a business mentality among labor and de-proletarianize workers," as a Guatemalan Solidarista pamphlet expressed it. A CITGUA study described the movement as "an elaborate and sophisticated effort to achieve domination through consensus... so that workers will embrace the dominant sectors' ideology as their own."

Solidarismo fosters the belief that the company belongs to everyone—a misperception even in the rare cases where workers own a small percentage of the stock. It asks workers to identify with management strategy to maximize productivity and profits, and to accept super-exploitation in the name of creating new wealth, little or none of which they will ever see.

As part of this ideological barrage, conflicts of interest between labor and management are blurred and the defense of class interests is de-legitimized. Unions are explicitly attacked for promoting conflict and allegedly threatening to destroy the companies on whose well being their workers' future depends.

The employer-sponsored movement thus plays an ideological role in favor of an economic system that has done little for Central America's poor majority. It encourages workers to seek individual economic solutions within the workplace, fostering a myth of upward mobility and shifting the focus away from the larger systemic crisis that is the source of their impoverishment. Associations deal with the needs of their members as individual consumers, eroding class solidarity and ignoring their needs as workers. Whereas unions often address larger social, economic and political issues and play a leadership role within a broader popular movement, Solidarista associations carefully avoid such entanglements. By destroying unions, they also weaken the popular movement as a whole.

Door ajar in Nicaragua

In Sandinista Nicaragua, Solidarismo had little chance of success. A state that promoted worker organization, limited the power of business interests and provided many of the social services offered elsewhere by Solidarista associations did not furnish a hospitable environment. Neither did a reduced private sector more interested in economic boycott and political confrontation than investment in conciliatory labor relations.

But with a new government in power, conditions have changed. Chamorro's pro-private enterprise orientation is reinforced by her government's dependence on international lending agencies pushing neoliberal economic policies that presume a weakened labor movement. "The government is going to try to penetrate and destroy all the social fabric woven by the Sandinistas during so many years," said Marcial Cabrera of the Nicaraguan hotel workers' union.

With an estimated 80-90% of the workforce unionized, the majority in pro-revolutionary unions, repression is clearly not the answer. As elsewhere in Latin America, parallel unions, like those sponsored by the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), have not generated enough of a base to offer an effective vehicle for taming the labor force. After the Nicaraguan elections, reports Cabrera, pro-government unions experienced some growth, but then lost momentum when they failed to defend workers' interests in the face of the economic crisis. In this context, moves to implement Solidarismo in Nicaragua are quietly being made.

A new Costa Rican import

The first initiatives are coming from Nicaraguan entrepreneurs who spent time in Costa Rica during the Sandinista years and were exposed to the wonders wrought by the movement on behalf of business interests. A recent management-sponsored seminar at Nicaragua's Victoria brewery, which is 68% privately owned, drew union representatives from the plant and from several other enterprises including the Pepsi bottling company (80% private) and the International Supermarket chain (state-owned). Workers were presented with a plan drawn up by Rodrigo Jiménez, leader of the Costa Rican Solidarista Union.

Jiménez's proposal is a version of Solidarismo—without ever mentioning the word—that seeks to channel Sandinista union demands for privatization of state enterprises to the workers into a conservative form palatable to the private sector. Under the plan, the state would sell 8-10% percent of the shares of selected companies to the workers, who would pay for them out of their future profits. Workers' shares would be managed by organizations known as "Associations for Integral and Labor Development" (ADIL), which would have a representative on each company's board of directors.

Beyond administering the shares, the associations would also be charged with a range of social, educational and recreational activities reminiscent of Solidarista associations elsewhere. While ADIL would be permitted to establish new enterprises, ties to political, ideological or religious organizations or activities outside its mandate would be strictly prohibited. To workers, Jiménez promises an improved living standard and other concrete benefits such as financing for schooling, housing and medical expenses. Employers are lured with promises of "a decrease in labor conflicts, increased motivation for productivity and efficiency and reduction of waste, invisible costs and superfluous expenses." The government is offered diminished social conflict, decreased company tax evasion, increased private sector employment allowing state sector cuts, and enhanced ability to attract new investments under clearly defined rules of the game.

Countering FNT proposals

Though the scheme bears some superficial resemblance to demands for worker ownership being put forward by the pro-Sandinista National Workers' Front (FNT), there are key differences. The token percent of stock being offered by Jiménez's plan would give workers little control over company management. While it would give workers a maximum 10% of the shares, the Sandinista Pepsi union, for example, is demanding a minimum of 20%. Then, too, being required to pay for their shares flies in the face of FNT insistence that the thousands of worker hours of volunteer labor and years of low pay during the war be recognized as an investment that gives them ownership rights.

The Costa Rican Solidarista leader appears to recognize some of the obstacles that Nicaragua's politically conscious union movement might pose. He asserts that, before the experiment can be implemented, workers must go through a training program "in order to develop their attitudes toward free enterprise, the market economy, administration, democratic principles," as well as to gain specific management skills. Jiménez stresses that the ADIL representative on the board must act "as a director of the company and not as a representative of labor."

Hotel workers' leader Cabrera expresses concern that this could result in workers being convinced to muzzle labor demands in favor of increased profits. With limited input on the board of directors, it would be difficult to guarantee the access to company books necessary to determine accurately the margin of profits available for negotiation with workers. "If we aren't in control, they could get us all tangled up," said Cabrera.

Jiménez proposed that at least two enterprises be chosen for a pilot project using his plan. He specifically named Pepsi and Victoria as potential candidates, saying there was union and shareholder support in both companies.

Employers at a number of state and mixed state-private enterprises, including International Supermarkets and the San Antonio sugar refinery, are wooing unionists with all-expense paid trips to Costa Rica to attend Solidarista seminars and see the system in action. Given the lack of information and critical analysis of Solidarismo available so far in Nicaragua, some may be tempted to take the bait. What real worker reaction will be when the implications of the plan become clear remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, pro-Solidarista forces continue to organize. According to ASEPROLA, a pro-union research center in Costa Rica, at least 74 Nicaraguan executives have attended Solidarista seminars in that country. While the Chamorro government has made no statements on the subject, government officials are rumored to have made contact with the John XXIII School in Costa Rica.

A Solidarista Central America?

While the consensual political climate in Costa Rica helped guarantee Solidarismo's success there, the polarized social situations in much of the rest of the region pose more of a challenge for the counterinsurgent movement. Solidarista inroads in Guatemala were only made after repression weakened the unions. According to Solidarista leaders, there are some 45 associations in Honduras but only 10 in El Salvador, where militant labor unions have slowed expansion.

But, as in Nicaragua, a number of factors now favor the growth of Solidarismo throughout the region. The economic crisis has brought growing unemployment and impoverishment, which weaken workers' bargaining power and make it harder to refuse jobs where joining a Solidarista association is a condition of employment. Neoliberal economic policies that mean cuts in social services may give Solidarismo's supposed benefits more appeal.

The anti-union movement has powerful backers among more forward-looking neoliberal business interests as well as sectors of the Catholic Church hierarchy and rightwing political forces. While there are some variations, the pro-private sector bent of all the governments in the region also favors Solidarismo.

The Solidaristas have fraternal ties with similar movements in the US that promote "Employee Stock Ownership Plans" (ESOPs) and management-controlled worker participation schemes such as "Quality Circles." While evidence of direct US government funding for Solidarismo is difficult to pin down, there is a clear coincidence of interests between the movement and US policymakers. Strengthening the private sector, privatizing public services, achieving social stability and destroying grassroots movements are shared goals. From the US point of view, a locally based movement provides an ideal vehicle. ASEPROLA quotes an executive vice president of Talman Savings and Loan in Chicago as saying, "I think that the rest of Latin America would accept ideas from Costa Rica that it would not accept directly from the United States."

In 1985, a US bipartisan presidential task force chaired by former US Ambassador to the Organization of American States J. William Middendorf was charged with "developing strategies for expanded capital ownership, privatization and free market policies throughout Central America and the Caribbean Basin." One of the participants was Joseph Recinos, a Guatemalan businessman linked to Solidarismo. In its final report, the task force featured La Perla as a model of expanded property ownership and recommended that AID support educational programs that promote worker ownership plans, opening the way to the funding of Solidarista umbrella groups. ASEPROLA researchers maintain that at least some of the USAID funds given to the Costa Rican government are passed on to the Solidarista movement, and in Guatemala AID has funded Solidarista meetings.

Internal weaknesses in the union movement also give Solidarismo an opening. Except in Nicaragua, rates of unionization are low—between 4% and 15% of the wage-earning population, according to ASEPROLA—leaving countless unorganized workplaces vulnerable to penetration by collaborationist ideologies. But even where workers are organized, unions have suffered from a narrow focus on economic issues, lack of creativity in developing tactics and demands, undemocratic internal practices and failure to make alliances with other sectors around broader issues. While union leaders are now critical of these past efforts, Solidarismo's vision of peace and harmony may appeal to workers tired of endless conflict with what seems like little result. Its claim to be apolitical could draw in those who have come to see union ties to political parties as counter to their own interests.

Divisions among unions often make it harder to fight the invasive phenomenon. In Nicaragua, for example, the AIFLD-backed Federation of Trade Union Unity (CUS) opposes Solidarismo but so far is not interested in working with the FNT to oppose it. "It's easier for us to fight it from our own perspective," said CUS political secretary Carlos Martínez. In Costa Rica, ASEPROLA reports that the unions are unified in their critique but not on their strategy for combating it.

Right and left resistance

The Solidarista movement has encountered resistance from the more recalcitrant members of the bourgeoisie who see any form of worker organization as a threat. Guatemalan Solidarista leader Sanchinelli says that one worried businessman asked her, "What will happen when the workers order me to sell them the factory or they'll close it down?"

The growing economic crisis throughout the region is likely to increase conflict at the workplace, not ameliorate it. With layoffs and speedups being increasingly forced on them, it may be difficult to convince workers that they share the boss' interests. Then, too, in hard times even those entrepreneurs who accept Solidarista philosophy may find it hard to justify the initial investment required.

Much depends on the effectiveness of labor opposition to the movement. In at least some countries, unions from a variety of ideological perspectives have united to mount a coordinated legal and educational challenge to Solidarismo. In Guatemala, labor organizations have questioned the movement's constitutionality in court and backed a law requiring companies to deposit workers' future severance pay in state banks, making the funds unavailable to Solidarista associations. Union education committees throughout the region have published materials on Solidarismo and are holding workshops with their members to explain the phenomenon and discuss how to counter it. One union sponsors a regular radio program on the subject.

Perhaps more important, labor activists are doing a critical evaluation of their own work, acknowledging that, among other errors, they often failed to offer social and economic alternatives to their members. "We are analyzing how we can cover the spaces we left to Solidarismo," said "Silvio," an organizer for the Guatemalan banana workers' union. Silvio emphasized the importance of reaching out to rank-and-file members of Solidarista associations rather than treating them as the enemy. "The best way to fight Solidarismo is to strengthen the union," he said.

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