Public Sector Braces for Attack from Incoming President
Workers in El Salvador are quickly moving to the defensive in the face of threats from the incoming administration of Nayib Bukele, whose anti-worker stance has put the labor movement on alert.
One of the major concerns is Bukele’s support for a proposed Public Service Law, a “growth initiative” mandate that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has imposed on the government of El Salvador. Unions have strongly denounced the proposal, saying it would engender mass layoffs and eliminate legally-enshrined labor protections. Throughout the spring, unionized public sector workers carried out a series of actions, shutting down a border crossing into Honduras and the gates of the Legislative Assembly, while judicial workers shut down the courts for a day with a work stoppage.
Many in the labor movement are also concerned by Bukele’s aggressive “anti-corruption” stance, a bedrock of his campaign that has now carried over into post-election posturing. Since winning the election, Bukele has repeatedly taken to the airwaves and social media to blast the outgoing FMLN administration for alleged “nepotism.”
Corruption has been a real problem in El Salvador, as evidenced by over 150 cases of embezzlement and graft involving right-wing ARENA officials totaling an estimated $4 billion that were presented to the Attorney General. Due to the Attorney General’s inaction, these cases now risk expiring under the statute of limitations.
However, since losing the presidency in 2009, right-wing politicians in El Salvador have tried to turn the tables, manipulating their control over the judicial system and the media to attack FMLN officials with baseless accusations. As is the case with Brazil’s former president, Lula de Silva, the right-wing in Latin America is increasingly using this type of “lawfare” to delegitimize and ultimately oust their political opponents.
Labor leaders in El Salvador warn that Bukele’s unsubstantiated accusations against FMLN officials and other government employees are being used to lay the groundwork for mass layoffs in the public sector in the months to come.
Perhaps most alarming are Bukele’s recent threats to use military force against unionization, which came in the wake of a union organizing drive by workers at the President’s office. The threats send a chilling message to the labor movement and, for many Salvadorans, carry with them a brutal reminder of El Salvador’s history of union repression.
Bukele’s anti-labor statements have been echoed in Salvadoran mainstream media, with various outlets blaming union contracts for creating an alleged budget deficit. Others blame the FMLN for “overspending” in the public sector.
It’s true that the FMLN prioritized public spending over the course of its two terms, in fact achieving a historic level of social investment. The FMLN created many urgently-needed social programs in health care, education and youth services, which, along with other progressive measures, helped to reduce poverty and reduce El Salvador’s deep inequality over their two terms in office.
Contrary to media claims of overspending on public job creation, however, the FMLN did this while creating the fewest public jobs for any post-war administration, 30,900 according to social security data. The majority of new jobs created were in security, education, science and technology, and health, translating to thousands of new teachers, doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers.
While it’s not surprising to see popular victories like public sector job creation, better wages, or union growth undermined in right-wing media, the current coverage appears to be setting the stage for a new round of austerity measures which social movement leaders warn could be devastating.