Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 347 | Junio 2010


El Salvador

The Labor Movement: Who’s Winning So Far?

In this new historical period opening up under President Funes’ government the Salvadoran labor movement is fragile, dispersed and rife with contradictions. While conditions in the country appear ripe for workers’ struggles to move forward, the Right seems in the lead in the struggle for hegemony in the union movement. Pulling the scattered unions into a bloc is the only way to win this dispute.

Elaine Freedman

May always reminds us of the martyred workers in Haymarket Square who were victims of repression and gave their lives fighting for the 8-hour workday when 12-18 hours was the norm. May 1 is thus celebrated as International Worker’s Day by workers throughout the world (except the United States, where the event took place). Besides being a day for workers to gather to express their contemporary demands, it’s a good time here in El Salvador to reflect on the advances and challenges of the country’s labor movement.

Its infancy

The first industries in El Salvador—drinks, textiles, tobacco and food—date back to the beginning of the 20th century. The move towards industrialization, although too modest to significantly change the agricultural economy that was focused on coffee growing, gave birth to a new social class—the urban working class, whose working conditions were deplorable.

The birth of unions in El Salvador’s nascent private industry strengthened the budding worker associations that had begun at the end of the previous century. According to historian Rafael Menjívar, the artisan guilds began as those of the New Spain colonial period were falling apart. El Salvador was part of the Kingdom of Guatemala and the guilds were part of a wide network of relationships organically linked to the Church and the Crown in the township. This artisan movement fought against the long workdays they were forced into much like the demand for an eight-hour workday that shook Chicago and the world.

Several years later these guilds were joined by organizations of railway workers and peasants that together formed the country’s first real unions in 1914. By 1917, 45 workers organizations made up the Society of Confederated Workers of El Salvador (SOESC). SOESC supported Arturo Araujo, a progressive candidate, who lost their sympathies when he pushed through various anti-labor measures after becoming President in 1931. SOESC was the precursor to the Regional Federation of Workers, born in 1924 and known as The Regional. Even though its core leadership was in the urban unions, it was responsible for guiding organizing work in the rural areas. The Regional gave birth to important efforts such as the People’s University, which politically shaped many of the grassroots leaders who founded El Salvador’s Communist Party in 1930.

1945: the Labor Movement
begins to rebuild

A good part of The Regional’s leaders lost their lives in the 1932 massacre and throughout the thirties both men and women workers were psychological prisoners of this terror. But little by little they tried out new forms of organizing to overcome this fear. There was massive participation by workers in the 1944 work stoppage strikes that brought down the dictatorship of General Martínez. It is interesting to note, however, that university students and not organized unions directed this strike.

The rebuilding of the labor movement started with the formation of the Labor-Union Reorganization Committee (CROSS). Salvador Cayetano Carpio, at the time a baker and the most important union leader of the period, describes its beginnings thus, “At midnight on November 30, 1945, they blew the train whistles, announcing the abrupt start of the railway workers strike. At a minute past zero hour the country’s entire railway system was paralyzed. Hours later, this huge strike ended with the meeting of our demands. As was by then traditional, strikes organized by the workers of various industries and trades during 1944-45 would break out without warning whenever peaceful methods had been exhausted.”

Cayetano Carpio adds that the strikes’ effectiveness in achieving labor demands alarmed the owners so they decided to legally curb them. On January 15, 1946, only months after the railway strike, the corrupt and inept government of Salvador Castaneda Castro issued the Law of Collective Labor Conflicts and created the National Labor Department. Among its many requirements, this law established a 30-day period between the declaration and the outbreak of a strike.

Proliferation of
Employer-based unions

The work of CROSS had tangible victories that showed official acceptance of unions in the country: the recognition of labor rights in the 1950 Constitution, the Workers Union Law and the Collective Bargaining Law. The labor movement consolidated, escaping the control of the dominant classes, which reacted with a new tactic. They simultaneously made CROSS illegal, exiling its leaders, and began trying to control the union movement directly by initiating a legalization process for unions and building the first centralized union sympathetic to owners’ interests: the General Confederation of Unions (CGS).

In the 1960s, industrialization initiatives based on the import substitutions model began with the creation of the Central American Common Market. Industrial production, financed primarily by loans from USAID, doubled between 1959 and 1969, as did the number of union affiliates. And between 1962 and 1970 the number of unions, most of them company-based as opposed to trade-wide, grew by 42%. This growth coincided with the birth of the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), a strategic response by the State Department and the CIA to “stop communism in El Salvador, since it is thought that the future of Latin America will be determined by the directions taken by the unions.” AIFLD was financed by USAID, the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the Rockefeller and Andrew Hamilton Foundations, and was dedicated to ideologically educating union leaders with a company-based, pro-US focus. It often subsidized leaders known for corrupt practices in order to promote divisionary tactics within the union federations.

Bureaucrats pulled the
plug on worker energy

The exception to this trend was the formation of the Unitary Federation of Salvadoran Unions (FUSS) in 1965. FUSS struggled to overcome the bureaucracy characterizing the labor movement. Cayetano Carpio describes this effort as the combativeness of the masses in response to bureaucratic waffling. “A group of workers, for example, would arrive to complain about violations and layoffs at their factories and they wanted to fight and call a strike. So what did our bureaucratic union reps do? First they’d say, ‘Look, fellows, here in the Labor Code on such and such a page is article such and such that protects you and we’re going to copy it down and you’ll sign it and we reps will take it to the Labor Minister, or one of you can go with us. Don’t worry or do anything. Tell the others to be patient and that it’s not a good time to have a strike….’ So instead of the energy and participation of the masses in the fight for their own interests, some paperwork was sent by a bureaucrat to the Ministry of Labor.”

Cayetano Carpio recalls that this “broke down completely in 1967, which explains the series of strikes that took place starting in January of that year. From then on these were the methods we used. First, we stopped respecting the Labor Code. Second, we defended the entrances from strikebreakers with picket lines and signs. Third, we clashed with police when they tried to enter by force. Revolutionary violence expressed in the strike turned it into a political strike. Fourth, we urged other factories to join the strike. And fifth, we continued to unite the working class to fight for its interests and build solidarity with other working class sectors so they’d join the struggle.”

The war years:
Unions still present

This radicalization of the labor movement was part of the boom of grassroots organizing that was the precursor to the development of the armed struggle in El Salvador. During the seventies the unions that were not part of AIFLD prioritized concrete actions without abandoning the legal struggle protected by the Labor Code. This work fell off in the early eighties when the level of repression rose overwhelmingly and a significant number of union organizers chose to join the political-military organizations that soon formed the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).

A few years later the first efforts to rearticulate union work around economic and organizing issues showed the first results even during the war. In 1983 the United Union and Professional Associations of El Salvador (MUSYGES) was formed and in the first ten months there were more than 50 activities: strikes, workplace lawsuits, complaints…

Three years later the grassroots federations joined with farm worker organizations, associations of public employees and cooperatives to form the National Unity of Salvadoran Workers (UNTS). UNTS led the largest mobilizations since the beginning of the war, making economic, political and social demands. It was a key player in the country’s political development. The number of union affiliates had declined due to the war and repression so labor’s role in the grassroots movement was less prominent than that of the farm workers. The associations belonging to the UNTS, however, still maintained militant union activities in those years. In one week of September 1986 alone the government was hit with 10 work stoppages. A significant number of union organizers were killed or disappeared during the war.

The end of the war brings
repression and lack of coordination

This labor movement activity continued through the end of the war in 1992, although there was always a significant current of company-based unions and federations during this period. The formation of a Forum of Economic and Social Concertation with equal participation by business, government and labor sectors was won by the labor movement as part of the Peace Agreements. The objective of this forum was to hammer out a wide-ranging set of binding agreements concerning the country’s economic and social development for the benefit of all its inhabitants that would become the nation’s public policies. Among other tasks, the forum would review the legal framework on labor issues to promote and maintain a harmonious climate for work relationships, keeping in mind the interests of the unemployed and the public in general.

Business and government urgently wanted to draw up a new Labor Code. Workers, however, maintained that to establish a stable basis for discussing a new Workers Code, various agreements from the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO) would first have to be ratified—especially those concerning free unions and collective bargaining, the work of minors and women, employment and the minimum wage—along with absolute respect for union rights.

While government and business representatives acted as a bloc, the labor organizations involved in this process did not. The repression against organizers increased with unjustified firings for belonging to or having belonged to unions. The use of “blacklisting” flourished, especially in the the maquilas—assembly plants for re-export.

Under the neoliberal model

Faced with the refusal of both government and business to establish a minimum regulatory framework for workers’ rights, the labor movement turned to the use of international laws. It demanded trade sanctions and with ILO support succeeded in getting 13 of its agreements ratified, which served as a basis for the 1995 reforms to the Labor Code. Meanwhile, in 1994, the business sector and the government, not at all enthusiastic about the bothersome Forum of Economic and Social Agreement, stopped using this arena, arguing it would “contaminate” the upcoming presidential elections. This suspension was the coup de grace for the forum, which was later replaced by the Higher Labor Council, a toothless tripartite organization whose union representation was repeatedly from the company-based unions.

As a result of neoliberal measures, the unions lost more and more ground during the nineties. Many of the strongest and most belligerent unions were in the state sector and were dismantled with the privatization of state-run businesses. Another modus operandi of big capital under the neoliberal model has been to outsource many elements of the economy, which meant that many workers were no longer in unions. Outsourcing or subcontracting takes workers off the payrolls of companies that have unions and moves them to companies that don’t. They might do the same work as unionized workers at the main business, and often even in the same factory, but they can be denied the right to organize and kept from receiving the working conditions guaranteed for the workers of the “mother” business in their collective contract.

“We almost had to
be labor lawyers”

With the exception of a fleeting mobilization in 1995, the movement became lethargic. Again bureaucracy became embedded in the unions of both the Left and Right. They began using the union strategies Cayetano Carpio calls demobilizing: “limiting themselves to the Labor Code, exclusively to notes to the Labor Minister, to those methods that imperialism had introduced into the labor movement.”

Alfredo Osorio, press and communications secretary to the Trade Union Confederation of Workers of El Salvador (CSTS), sees it this way: “The war ends and force is no longer what gives the orders, but rather negotiation. Leaders who have been used to clashes in the streets put their rocks aside and now have to be more pro-active with the Labor Code and collective contracts. One has to be almost a labor lawyer to face off with companies legally hand-in-hand with the right-wing ARENA party.”

Today, dispersed and weak

With all that has gone before, it’s not surprising that the labor movement is arriving dispersed and weak at this new stage opened by President Mauricio Funes’ government. According to data in the book by the nongovernmental organization Equipo Maiz called La Composición Social en El Salvador, only 16.4% of the working population—21% of men and 6.3% of women—belongs to a union. According to Víctor Aguilar, an economist and member of the Independent Workers Union of Professions and Trades, this statistic represents less than 5% of the country’s economically active population.

The same book mentions the existence of four labor confederations in El Salvador, three of which usually follow the political positions of ARENA, the main business class party. Of the five main union centrals, four are linked to this or other rightwing parties, just as are four of the five non-confederated federations. Alejandro Ramos, secretary general of the Salvadoran Trade Union Federation (FESS), identified corruption as one of the biggest maladies affecting the movement right now. A practice fed by the same business leaders who discredited and weakened the movement throughout the years, it has led some historic unions that played a militant role in the seventies and eighties to make illegal agreements over time with the factory owners until they became company-based unions politically allied with ARENA and the National Conciliation Party.

Social Economic Council

Just before the change of government last year, workers marched on May 1 demanding among other issues that the Forum on Economic and Social Constitution be reinstated. At the end of his first hundred days in office, President Mauricio Funes established the Social Economic Council (CES), using the model of the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) in Spain and the Workers Party (PT) in Brazil. The Council is made up of 24 members from private business, 8 from the labor movement, 16 from the non-labor social movement, 10 from universities and academic life and 4 from government. It is chaired by Alex Segovia, personal secretary to the President. Although it seemed this council would take up labor’s demands, it lacks an essential ingredient: the binding aspect that ensures that decisions made there become public policy or law.

President Funes defined the Council’s strategic goal as “helping to build national public policies that give continuity and preference to good public administration that thus create an agreeable national and foreign investment climate.” It’s well known that “an agreeable national and foreign investment climate” is usually pretty disagreeable for workers.

Alex Segovia demanded a “unified” entity to represent all the unions in this council. In this context, a series of federations revived the acronym of MUSYGES, that combative union that pulled the labor movement out of its death throes in 1983. As Alfredo Osorio recalls, “There was a lot of pushing and pulling to put together the Economic Social Council, since there were only 8 seats for labor. The formation of MUSYGES was an idea of those union leaders who had always been allied with the ARENA governments and some who had more recently joined that group.”

“There was a lot of discussion in our organization to decide if we would join the CES or not,” adds Alilio Jaimes, the CSTS secretary of conflicts and representative of the Social Front for a New Country in the Economic Social Council. We decided to participate so we’d know what work the government was really planning to do to benefit the major sectors of society. And also to have the chance to present our proposals and be close enough to make sure they became reality. But unfortunately, to date this hasn’t happened. They always say they’re going to look at our proposals in the next session because the agenda’s too full.” He believes the situation with MUSYGES in the Council is very different. “It seems to us that MUSYGES maintains bilateral ties with the business sector. We say this because all of MUSYGES’ proposals in the Council reflect the position of the business sector and vice versa.”

May 1, 2010:
No to AA, yes to ALBA

There were two distinct marches on May 1 of this year. One was a massive grassroots march that was bigger than all those of recent years and even surpassed the leaders’ expectations. More than 150,000 unionists, peasants, women, students and FMLN militants reportedly came together in this march; even more than in 2009 in what had been a courageous show of grassroots power.

Wilfredo Berríos, general coordinator of the Salvadoran Labor Front, a group of organizations close to the FMLN that issues statements and demonstrates on national issues affecting workers, thinks that the great number of demonstrators from the labor bloc this year shows that the labor movement is recuperating. The labor bloc marched under the demonstration’s general slogan: “The people triumphed; we demand change.” They specified that the change must not include signing the Association Agreement with the European Union (AA)—the trade agreement President Funes signed 19 days later—but must include the incorporation of El Salvador into the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA).

A much smaller march—between 500 and 1,000 people—organized by MUSYGES demonstrated simultaneously in another part of the city. Most of their slogans were insults against the present labor minister and shouts of “We’re the real workers!” The marchers carried pictures of the Labor Ministry heads with the caption “corrupt.” The march, though very small in size, showed that the Right is ready to try new tactics to take control of the labor movement.

The Labor Ministry:
several successes and a breather

Labor Minister Victoria Marina de Avilez has earned appreciation and respect from all labor organizations except the unions in MUSYGES. Barrios’ assessment, shared by the majority of union leaders, is that “there was clear complicity in the violation of labor rights between the previous labor minister and private enterprise. So even with its limitations, we consider the actions of this labor minister positive.” Alejandro Ramos thinks the Ministry “has an acceptable approach that adheres to the Constitution” and characterizes this period as a “breather” from ARENA’s anti-labor policies that allows the labor movement time to revitalize.

Above all, the legalizing of new unions that meet the legal requirements is seen as an important achievement. In less than a year the Labor Ministry granted legal status to 70 new unions, which is 85% of the number of unions legalized during the entire 20 years of the ARENA government. The Ministry has also investigated unions that register a high number of members they really don’t have and has taken measuresa against them. This is important because often these unions use their supposedly high representation to monopolize the places available to labor in the tripartite organizations with government and business, then defend the rights of the business class rather than the workers. Finally, the new administration has ceased many, though not all, of the corrupt practices of the past, such as informing business owners of workers who presented documents to form new unions. It has also facilitated the unionization of the public sector.

An Indicative case

The open question is whether the improved relationship between the union movement and the Labor Ministry has implications for the relationship between t workers and the business class. Recent events give the impression that they do not.

On May 20t, La Prensa Gráfica reported on a second meeting between the Labor Ministry and Social Welfare with the Chamber of Textile and Garment Industry (CAMTEX) to discuss the latter’s proposal to increase the work schedule in some maquilas to 12-hour days. CAMTEX justified the proposal by stating that this would enable it to add 11,800 new jobs to this sector. While the Labor Minister categorically rejected the proposal, it was sent for a joint review by the President’s personal secretary, Alex Segovia, and the Labor Minister. The proposal is to compress the 44-hour work week into three workdays of 12 hours and one of 6, presumably to free up a number of sewing machines on the other days rather than buy more. Shades of that first march in Chicago over 120 years ago to demand the 8-hour work week.

A revealing strike

Even crasser were the events of May 14 in front of two maquilas in the San Marcos free trade zone, located alongside a freeway. Unionized women who worked at these two plants, supported by FESS, held a 4-day work stoppage because management had not honored the wage increase agreed upon a year ago. They blocked the entrance to the plant in an action known to both San Marco’s National Police Force and the zone owners, who have an agreement with the union that raw materials will not be allowed to enter a business that’s in violation of labor laws.

After three days of nonviolent activity, another group of workers appeared, accompanied by leaders of the National Trade Union Federation of Salvadoran Workers (FENASTRAS). This union is well known for its heroic trajectory in the eighties, but after some 15 years of moving more and more to the right, it ended up heading MUSYGES in 2009.

FENASTRAS closed the freeway to Comalapa and announced it was to pressure the government to remove the FESS union organizers since they weren’t allowing materials to enter, thus preventing the supposed non-union workers from working. FENASTRAS leader Sonia Urrutia told the press that “all this is due to a small group of workers who are blocking our way. We’re asking the National Police to solve this because they must secure our entrance to the free trade zone.” With this statement, she made it clear that FENASTRAS’ main concern was to guarantee business’ production and not workers’ labor rights.

In case any doubts remained, women at the company report that, when they went back into the plant, the administration handed them a form to join FENASTRAS. It was implicitly clear to these workers that their signature is now an implicit requirement for working there. Although pitting worker against worker is not a new strategy, the outcome of this confrontation was surprising.

“Let’s hope this isn’t a
message from the government”

The Minister of Justice and Public Safety, Manuel Melgar, sent a group from the Order Maintenance Unit (UMO) to clear the freeway, later arguing that he ordered the removal because “it wasn’t not fair for people who had to leave the country to miss their flight.” After negotiations between the FENASTRAS leadership and the UMO, they entered the free trade zone together and removed the striking workers. UMO went after FESS members with blows and pepper spray, forcing them to leave. When the workers tried to defend themselves, three FESS leaders were arrested.

One of the three, Alejandro Ramos, whose sentence involved alternatives to jail time, said, “We hope the attitude shown by UMO isn’t a sign or a message that the government isn’t going to tolerate the workers’ right to organize. The way we were dealt with for acting against labor rights violations takes us back to the violence shown by previous governments.”

Wilfredo Berríos commented that “what happened on Friday, May 14, was regrettable. I think it’s the first time this government used repression against a union. A union federation was defending its rights and other unions were used; they negotiated with them to represent the company’s interests.”

FESS, a relatively new federation of unions, is one of the few that has opted for “hands-on” methods to pressure businesses to negotiate better working conditions when the legal avenues don’t lead anywhere. In the past year, this federation has supported six actions of this type, mainly in large machine shops when workers haven’t gotten their overtime pay and their right to unionize has been violated. This is probably why El Diario De Hoy fingered Ramos as “the agitator of several protests” and says he “takes it upon himself to direct other people to support union groups that are in disagreement with the owners of their businesses.” This appraisal explains the death threats that Ramos and several other federation leaders have reported.

The movement is also vulnerable because there are no avenues of communication among the grassroots unions that would lead to massive actions that are more difficult to break. The CSTS leaders commented that they weren’t even aware of the FESS work stoppage in San Marco until it came out in the news, which covered the story only after the repression started.

Energy, participation
and a support network

On the other hand, FESS’ strategy is trying to recover what Cayetano Carpio called “the energy and mass participation in the fight for their own interests.” It reflects what workers of SELSA (the Lido Company, Inc. union) learned recently when they paralyzed production after the company not only didn’t give them the annual raises stated in their collective contract but in fact reduced their wages. The union members developed a support network with other unions, churches and market vendors, which helped them keep the fired union members in the process until they were reinstated. After a three-year battle (from 2002 until 2005) they finally won. These processes take the labor battle out of the offices and courts and put them back in their original place—the factories and the streets.

This strategy draws attention to the contradiction in the labor movement today: on the one hand the country’s historical moment is favorable for improving conditions and advancing workers’ struggles; and on the other the Right still seems to be moving forward in its fight over hegemony in the labor movement.

To overcome atomization

For this type of strategy to work one must create a bloc of unions that can support each other in the factories, the streets and the political arena. Alfredo Osorio summarizes the challenge: “The labor movement is dispersed because it has no common reference point that pulls together the federations and confederations of unions that really fight for workers’ interests. We’re prisoners of atomization. We have to build a common platform of demands that integrates all the autonomous, representative and democratic associations. A united labor bloc can involve organizations with different ideologies but all of us must share the commitment to structurally transform society.”

Elaine Freedman is a grassroots educator and envío correspondent in El Salvador.

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