Labor activists face retaliation and intimidation for supporting municipal workers
Late in the evening on Sunday, October 26, National Civil Police arrived at the Casa Sindical (Union Hall), home of the Salvadoran Union Front (FSS) and cordoned off the building, denying workers entry and refusing to present legal justification for the action. The following morning, a crowd of FSS organizers gathered to demand that the police either produce a warrant or allow the unionists access to their space. As tensions mounted, legislators and officials from the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party arrived and helped the unionists persuade the police to withdraw after confirming that no search warrant or judge’s order existed.
For FSS organizers, the episode recalled scenes of police intimidation and attacks against workers in the years leading up to and throughout the civil war; indeed, the incident occurred just days before the 23rd anniversary of the bombing of the very same Union Hall by paramilitary death squads that left 10 members of the FENASTRAS labor federation dead in 1989.
Wilfredo Berríos, Secretary General of the FSS, reported that sources within the government have informed the unionists that Norman Quijano and COENA, the leadership committee of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, told the police that the Casa Sindical housed hidden grenades. On Tuesday morning, Union Front activists filed charges with the Attorney General against General Francisco Salinas, Director of the National Civil Police, for the unlawful closure. The following Wednesday, National Unionist Day, labor activists commemorated the 1989 attacks on FENASTRAS and marched to the offices of the Central Government, condemning repressive actions against organized labor.
Berrios sees Quijano’s actions as a reprisal for the FSS’s support of fired municipal workers in ARENA municipalities through the FSS-affiliate Federation of Municipal Workers Unions (FESITRAM). The FSS has been busy in recent weeks, as denouncements of politically motivated firings have poured in from municipalities around San Salvador. Even as ARENA mayors work to mitigate recent scandals around salary raises, many of these same municipal governments, including those of Soyapango, Ilopango, Mejicanos and San Salvador, are now facing fierce labor protests for massive firings of municipal workers, many of whom are FESITRAM affiliates.
The FSS has been actively and vocally accompanying the fired workers in mounting protests and filing claims against these municipal governments for unlawful dismissals. Mayor Norman Quijano of San Salvador, the ARENA presidential candidate for the 2014 elections, fired some 850 municipal workers upon assuming office in May 2009. Mayor of Soyapango, Jaime Lindo, has dismissed some 56 municipal workers since taking office without giving any justification for the lay-offs.
In Mejicanos, Mayor de Pacas fired 42 municipal workers upon taking office, and on October 31st, de Pacas set off massive protests after announcing that she would be laying off another 80 workers. Tensions escalated when some 50 municipal security agents refused the Mayor’s order to attack the demonstrating municipal workers, and were immediately fired as well. Mayor de Pacas has since insisted that the municipal security agents willfully resigned their positions, thus exempting them from any severance pay or due benefits. Samanta de Gallegos of the municipal workers union of Mejicanos contended that the agents “refused to beat us up, but in no moment have they resigned.” The incident received widespread national attention, and negotiations between the Mayor’s office and dismissed workers seeking reinstatement or compensation are now underway with the Human Rights Ombudsman.
FSS organizers, meanwhile, are concerned that last month’s police intimidation at the Casa Sindical could mark the beginning of a series of assaults on organized labor in general and the FSS in particular. Wilfredo Berrios considers the police’s illegal acts and Quijano’s false and outlandish accusations against the FSS to be a direct attack on the freedom of association. He sees the Mayor’s attacks in concert with the recent violent eviction of thousands of street vendors as part of Quijano’s electoral bid, a move to lash out at his political opposition. Berrios called on “people across the world to denounce Mayor Quijano’s thuggish attacks.”