On Day of Salvadoran Unionist, Unions Say 'Enough'
October 31, 2019 marked the 30-year anniversary of the bombing at the National Federation of Salvadoran Workers' Trade Unions (FENASTRAS) headquarters, where nine unionists were killed, including the General Secretary, Febe Elizabeth Velásquez. What followed was a major offensive by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in November of 1989 named “Febe Elizabeth lives” that ultimately sped up peace talks between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN. This October 31st, amid dizzying attacks against workers by the Bukele administration, unions honored the memory of Febe Elizabeth by reaffirming their commitment to defending working class interests and advancing social justice.
On October 31, two major labor confederations, the Salvadoran Union Front (FSS) and the Popular Coalition for a Safe Country without Hunger (CONPHAS Popular) commemorated “Day of the Salvadoran Unionist” at Plaza Salvador del Mundo. From the plaza, they marched to Confía, a for-profit pension administrator, where they expressed their opposition to the existing partially privatized pension system by forming a human chain around the building. Their key demands included that the president respect job stability, commit to protecting the 8-hour work day, increase the minimum wage, support the renationalization of the pension system, and end the intimidation of union leaders. Finally, they called on the Bukele Administration to approve of the General Water Law, a bill presented by the environmental movement that seeks to prevent the commercialization of water.
A few weeks prior, on October 15, the two organizations jointly expressed their opposition to various actions taken by President Nayib Bukele, including the weaponization of the Ministry of Labor against alternative media and political opponents. In particular, the unions cited a biased pattern of inspections carried out by the Ministry of Labor against left and progressive news outlets and criticized efforts by the government to censor the media, including the famed Diario Co Latino, as politically driven. The unions also denounced the recent closure of several Mr. Donut locations by the Ministry of Labor (which some see as an act of retaliation against the investigative news outlet Revista Factum for reporting on a case of corruption involving the President. The owner of Mr. Donut is linked to Factum). Due to the closures, it has been estimated that 400 jobs were lost, the majority held by women. While some have found work elsewhere, the majority remain without work or legal recourse.
The women have fought back, protesting in front of the Presidential House and demanding an immediate reversal of the store closures, the dismissal of Rolando Castro as the Minister of Labor, an end to the persecution of working women, and a rejection of the use of tax dollars to carry out personal revenge. But for now, they find themselves in the same limbo as hundreds of public sector employees who were laid off shortly after Bukele was inaugurated.
Regarding the mass layoffs, the Supreme Court of El Salvador is in the process of determining whether or not they were legal, given that the elimination of presidential secretariats like the Secretariat of Social Inclusion and Secretariat of Transparency and Anti-Corruption corresponds to the Legislative Assembly.
Further, President Bukele has shown a willingness to even go after unions with long histories of struggle, such as the Social Security Institute Workers' Union (STISSS). The STISSS is the largest and arguably the most powerful union in El Salvador, derailing repeated attempts to privatize the healthcare system from 1999 to 2003. However, it is now facing a crisis after the Minister of Labor Castro recognized an unelected executive board to replace the democratically elected board, in effect overriding the will of union affiliates. (You can sign our petition demanding that Castro revert his decision here.) If Bukele’s strategy to weaken some of the country’s strongest unions as well as bottom out the social safety net by cutting subsidies succeeds, it would be a "blow to the poorest," according to the FSS and CONPHAS.
Born on August 26, 1962, Febe Elizabeth was someone who recognized the importance of struggle in the creation of a better society, at one point leading a 32 day hunger strike in the textile industry. Considered a “dangerous enemy,” Febe was kidnapped on July 7, 1986 by heavily armed men in civilian clothes, but was released after five days of physical and psychological torture. After her release, her words were: "I will continue to fight, because it is just and I do not fear for my life." While the Bukele administration has made clear that its utmost priority is to attract U.S. and foreign investment at the expense of Salvadoran workers, the labor movement will continue to lurch towards a future where workers rights are respected and tenets of social justice are never questioned.