On May Day, Social Movement Sends Message to President-Elect: We Will Defend Achievements and Continue to Demand Change

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On International Workers' Day, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of San Salvador to demand that President-elect Nayib Bukele ally himself with working-class people, not with US and right-wing economic interests in the region.

Shortly after being elected in February, Bukele traveled to Washington DC to speak at the Heritage Foundation, a notoriously conservative US think tank, promising to usher in a so-called new era in Salvadoran politics by making "El Salvador a friend to the US again." Ostensibly, he intends to do this by creating favorable conditions that will attract US private investment, including policies to limit government oversight and regulation. Similarly, he has promised to cooperate with a regional US strategy to help curb migration that human rights advocates have decried for violating international refugee protections.

However, during the May 1 march, labor unions and other sectors of the popular movement sent a clear message of opposition to more of the same policies that have driven working-class families to leave the country en masse since the mid-90s. As one banner read, "Bukele and ANEP (National Association of Private Enterprise) - the same B.S."

Another banner summed up the main demands of the march and of the labor movement itself heading into this new political period: "United in the fight for the right to unionize, job stability, nationalization of the pension system, an increase in the minimum wage, and against water privatization."

Check out pictures from the May Day march in El Salvador here.

Many of the social movement demands are historic in nature but have taken on a new urgency since the 2019 presidential election, which the incumbent leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party lost to a self-proclaimed independent who ran with the right-wing Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA).

Labor unions are calling for a higher minimum wage, a goal frequently blocked by the business sector, which has a seat at the table in determining the private sector minimum wage. They are also advocating for the nationalization of the pension system, which was partially privatized in 1996 and now grants an outrageously low income that does not allow people to retire with dignity, if at all. Finally, they are demanding job stability for workers in both the public and private sectors, as well as protections for labor organizers seeking to form unions in those sectors. Workers fear mass public sector layoffs on the horizon given Bukele's frequent charges of "nepotism" against the current government and an IMF-mandated Public Service Law that, if approved in the legislature, would be a death-knell for public sector unions. 

Feminists also took to the streets on May 1 to present the demands of working-class women and of women within the union movement. In El Salvador, women often bear the brunt of weak labor protections and receive among the lowest wages, particularly in the maquila sectors. Similarly, women are poorly paid and highly exploited in informal sectors, including domestic worker and seamstresses doing in-home embroidery work for garment companies. For these reasons, many women’s organizations and feminist unions are demanding that the government ratify International Labor Convention 189, which would both guarantee that these sectors receive greater oversight from the Ministry of Labor and ensure benefits, such as social security and pensions, to the women who work within them.

Also present alongside the labor movement at the march were environmental organizations that continue to demand the approval of the General Water Law, which would protect water as a human right and as a public good, and to reject the right-wing’s ongoing efforts to commercialize water via privatization

The right-wing is returning to the executive across Latin America, often aided by the United States, and ushering in a resurgence of the neoliberal economic model in the region. Organizers of the International Workers' Day march sharply denounced the Washington Consensus, which reigned in El Salvador following the signing of the Peace Accords in 1992, for "debilitating the [state's capacity] to regulate and invest in public services." Under this model, right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) governments elevated free-market policies that wrenched open El Salvador's productive national industries to transnational capital.

In order to attract foreign investment, ARENA suppressed the minimum wage, impeded union activity, and weakened environmental protections. Major public sector industries, including electricity, telecommunications, banks and the airport, among others, were privatized, decimating unions and depriving the government of resources to fund public services. The cumulative effect has been soaring inequality and mass migration.

While the progressive FMLN administrations of the past ten years were not able to revert much the damage caused during twenty years of right-wing rule, they were able to recover some of the state's historic roles and responsibilities. During the current FMLN presidency, for example, the country doubled the minimum wage for many workers and passed the first-ever ban on mining. FMLN legislators also coordinated with unions to limit the reach of a US scheme demanding privatization of public institutions in exchange for development aid.

Now, given the coziness between the incoming Bukele administration and the US Embassy, the popular movement is declaring it will not return to policies that were never truly meant to achieve "economic growth, employment, and prosperity." 

Instead, the popular movement is pressing for an equitable distribution of wealth, participatory democracy, and gender and environmental justice, as well as for the continuity of existing subsidies and social programs created under the FMLN, for example, to guarantee universal access to public education and health care.

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