||Issue No. 137||24 May 2002|
An Aussie Icon
Interview: Just Done It?
Tribute: Lest We Forget
History: Solidarity Forever
Technology: Unblocking the Superhighway
International: Gloves Off
Unions: Out Of Work
Review: Strange Business
Poetry: The Lawyer's Lament
Satire: Government Mourns Loss Of Last Anzac
The Locker Room
Week in Review
Your Tools Page is Down
Big Dave Foster
Give Us a Click!
Will the Real Mark Latham Please Stand Up?
The Last Survivor
Not Hate Mail
By Andrew Casey
- International Editor
But it is the trade unions - and their associated political parties - which are playing a key formative role in moulding the future of the continent.
In the last two months well-organised unions, with popular backing, have called out massive numbers of their members to back general strikes in Argentina, Peru and Venezuela.
Meanwhile in Ecuador and Colombia para-military thugs have tried to hold back this popular union wave by shooting and killing union activists and rank-and-file members.
Immediate international support for the workers in Ecuador is crucial. Below you can find a link to a web-site giving ideas of how you can help.
But in Brazil the hugely popular former trade union leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva - popularly known as Lula - is tipped by opinion polls to become the next President at the October elections leading the militant leftwing Workers' Party
A common thread throughout all the union protests is the role of the International Monetary Fund - and the economic proscriptions it is forcing onto South American governments.
There is no little irony in the fact that it is the South American trade union movement who are the principal organisers of the struggles against the proscriptions of the Washington-based IMF.
Many of these same unions, during the Cold War era, were the playthings of the CIA.
But they are now organised and mature enough to cut loose from their former Washington spy masters, and now are fighting the new group in Washington trying to master their national countries.
There are plenty of Boys-Own spy stories of how the CIA set up trade unions throughout South America, and put CIA people in to work out of local trade union offices - or out of the regional offices of international trade unions.
Since the start of this week a growing union campaign - which started with picketing of banks by bank workers in regional areas - has swept over Argentina.
Because of the economic crisis in that country Argentina is at the centre of the working class turmoil in South America.
On Wednesday thousands of striking union workers marched on the presidential palace denouncing the government's handling of the country's deep economic crisis.
The demonstration on the downtown Plaza de Mayo was the first large union protest against President Eduardo Duhalde since he assumed office in January, after deadly street riots forced his predecessor from power.
Some 4,000 angry union workers and the unemployed thumped on drums and thrust banners in the air decrying Duhalde and his efforts to win billions of dollars in bailout loans from the International Monetary Fund.
Argentina's second-largest trade union confederation, led by teamster's leader Hugo Moyano, organized the protest. Moyano called on the government to raise worker salaries and ignore the IMF's demands for further spending cuts.
In Peru President Alejandro Toledo pleaded with his opponents "Let me work, for God's sake" as he battled the hostility of workers and braced for the biggest strike of his 10 months in office.
The workers and unions are angry that the President - who had got into power with the support of unions - had broken a promise not to privatize the electricity companies.
Nearly 55 percent of Peruvians scrape by on $US 1.25 a day or less. Unemployment and underemployment top 50 percent, and only the mining industry is showing real health as the economy battles back to growth.
Worried about the strike the President called out more than 90,000 police officers to control the demonstrators and tried to scare people from participating by suggesting leftist Maoist guerillas would hijack the strike - something which in the end did not happen but may have kept some people from joining in the protests.
Union organisers say Toledo vowed during the campaign not to privatize generators Egasa and Egesur, whose sale has been delayed three times and is now set for mid-June. The government hopes to net at least $156 million, a chunk of its 2002 privatization goal of up to $800 million, but political opponents say it has attached "bargain basement" price tags.
Alvaro Cole, head of the CITE union, said workers across the country backed the union's call for strikes because of their anger that the government had collapsed to IMF pressures and was selling off the generators.
Earlier this month an attempted coup against the three year old left-wing government of Hugo Chavez failed - the coup came after a three day general strike organized by a union-business coalition angered at what they saw as the increasingly anti-democratic and authoritarian regime.
Chavez was hugely popular among the poorest people of Venezuela. He dressed himself up in the aura of revolutionary heroes like Che Guevara and was close to Fidel Castro.
However he was offside with many trade unions as he tried to force elections and displace existing union leaders with his own hand-picked supporters.
Chavez campaigned long and loud for the "destruction" of the main national trade union centre the Confederation of Venezulan Workers (CTV). He suspended collective bargaining in the public sector and the petroleum industry by decree.
He threatened to freeze union bank accounts and promoted the formation of a parallel "Bolivarian Workers' Front."
Chavez's attack on the CTV culminated in a December 2000 referendum on internal union governance in which all citizens--including nonunion members, such as business people and the military--were allowed to vote.
This referendum was condemned by the ILO and by the international trade union movement. In the end Chavez failed very publicly when the vast majority of the population simply abstained from voting.
During a massive demonstration, supported by the CTV, more than 150,000 people marched through the streets of the capital Caracas shooting broke out between pro- and anti-Chavez supporters - it is unclear who started the shooting, and exactly who was killed.
However recent reports suggest the shooting was started by a far right extreme political grouping known as Bandera Roja. and, despite earlier reports, most of the deaths and injuries were not among the anti-government demonstrators but from among the 5000 unemployed and poor people who enthusiastically came out to support the pro- government, pro-Chavez counter demonstration.
This shooting became the excuse for the military coup.
While Chavez and the trade union leadership in his own country did not see eye-to-eye union leaderships across South America immediately came out and condemned the attempted coup.
Under pressure from the ILO and international union grouping the Venezuelan government last week issued a statement that it will respect trade union rights .
Venezuelan labour minister María Cristina Iglesias last Friday said she accepted that the country's labour law should be changed so as to lift some current restrictions on trade union freedom.
This is in line with recommendations made by a mission from the UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO), which visited Venezuela last week.
It is in the huge but very isolated plantations of Ecuador that we hear of some of the most violent struggles going on by workers demanding decent pay and conditions.
This week reports seeped out of how Ecuador's banana workers have come under violent attack as they fight for basic rights.
Early on the morning of May 16, between 3-400 hooded men - some of them armed -assaulted workers on strike on the Los Alamos plantations which produce for the Ecuadorian company Noboa, which owns one of the best-selling US banana brands, the Bonita brand.
According to reports received by the foodworkers' union international - the IUF - some one dozen workers were wounded, including gunshot wounds. The workers' homes were looted and women were abused.
Reports identified a company vehicle as having accompanied the attackers. The workers fought back and detained some 40 of the attackers until police eventually arrived. The strike continues
The attack followed earlier threats by private "security guards" against banana workers on strike for union recognition at the Danish-owned Rio Culebra plantation, which produces for the transnational Dole. On May 15, thugs told the workers to abandon their struggle or face assault by a larger "security" contingent the next night.
These violent attacks come in response to the largest upsurge in union activity in decades in Ecuador's banana plantations, where past repression has virtually eliminated unions. In February, over 1,400 workers at seven plantations producing for Noboa struck in support of their demands for overtime pay, health care benefits and centers, decent wages, and union recognition, specifically the right to affiliate to FENACLE, the union federation seeking to organize the plantations.
In response to the strike, 124 union supporters were fired and hundreds of workers on short-term contracts were not called back to work. The unions' registration application was initially denied - on the spurious grounds that the workers are not directly employed by Noboa - but on April 26 recognition was granted when the unions reapplied for registration as working for the three companies that manage the Alamos plantations and sell to Noboa.
Ecuador's banana workers, through their action, are now launching the most determined challenge in decades to the companies' exploitation and repression. They are fighting for banana workers everywhere, seeking to halt the race to the bottom and lift standards throughout the industry. Your support is urgently needed.
Please visit this IUF website to find out what you can do. by Click here.
At least 191 union activists were murdered in Colombia last year. Since the beginning of 2002, over 60 more have been slain. The great majority of these killings have gone uninvestigated and unpunished.
Colombia is the world's most dangerous country in which to be a trade unionist.
This week there were a number of international unions protests organised to support unionists in Colombia.
The protesters called on Colombia's government to act to halt the wave of killings, abductions and disappearances. And, they said, they must act now.
That was the clear message brought to the Colombian Ambassador in Brussels who during the week met a delegation of Belgian and international trade union leaders.
As demonstrators chanted in the street outside, the delegation presented the ambassador with a letter detailing just some of the recent crimes against Colombian trade union leaders.
Persecution against the Colombian trade union movement has become "serious, systematic and persistent," the letter points out. While the crimes against trade unionists rarely result in prosecutions, some leaders of the oilworkers' union USO have themselves been brought before Colombian courts in trials that are "marked by repeated serious violations of the minimum rules of due process and defence rights". The unions suggest the appointment of a special official within the Colombian prosecutor's office. The official's task would be to ensure that any trials against USO leaders are conducted fairly.
The unions' letter goes on to condemn the escalation of the armed conflict in Colombia. While this has undoubtedly led to violations of trade union rights and other human rights, such breaches cannot be seen as "a natural consequence of the existence of the conflict."
The letter calls for a resumption of dialogue and negotiations with the guerrillas in Colombia, "leading to a cessation of hostilities and a humanitarian agreement that lays the basis of a solid and lasting peace process". The European Union should continue to stimulate such negotiation and dialogue, the unions say. At the same time, responsibility for ending the persecution of trade unionists in Colombia rests with the Colombian State. The letter also stresses that the special Colombian forces set up to protect energy industry installations must operate under proper legal and constitutional control.
"The Ambassador was quite open and candid," ICEM General Secretary Fred Higgs told the demonstrators just after the delegation emerged from lengthy talks inside the embassy. "The Ambassador said that corruption, due in particular to money from the drugs trade, had reduced the ability of the Colombian State and judiciary to act. We pointed out that this was no excuse for permitting the murder and abduction of trade unionists, and we assured him that the international trade union movement would continue to monitor developments in Colombia very closely. He promised to relay our letter to the Colombian President and Government, and to communicate their response."
To applause from the crowd, Higgs described Colombia's trade unionists as "heroic" and urged the global trade union movement to continue supporting them in every possible way.
If you want to keep up to date with what's going on in trade union affairs in Latin America wny not visit LabourStart's South America and Central America pages - available in both English and Spanish.
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