Bukele Regime Ramps Up Attacks on Unions

Members of the Fired Workers Movement march with a banner that says "We demand that Bukele stop illegal firings in the government, Legislative Assembly, and municipalities. We demand the immediate instatement of the people who were fired."

20,000 public workers have been fired since Nayib Bukele became president in 2019

In late August, the federal government of El Salvador announced their intention to close the National Professional Training Institute (INSAFORP) and the National Youth Institute (INJUVE), leaving hundreds of thousands of people who benefit from their programs each year in limbo. It also leaves hundreds of workers in a state of uncertainty and will result in the dissolution of their unions. These closures are the latest events in a series of attacks on government programs, workers, and their unions, many of which were highlighted in a September 8 press conference by the Labor Justice Roundtable.

“This government has been closing a series of institutions with the supposed intention of saving money. But along with the closures of these entities, comes mass firings of workers. And this is also an attack against unions since the unions that exist in these institutions are totally eliminated,” stated Salomón Alfaro of the Fired Workers Movement (MTD).

According to the MTD, over 20,000 public workers have been fired illegally since Bukele took office. The majority worked in federal institutions, while 25 municipalities fired 4,444 total workers and about 2,500 were fired from the Legislative Assembly. This downsizing of the public workforce has resulted in the elimination of 10 unions, not including the unions representing workers at INSAFORP and INJUVE. Union leaders, by law, must be afforded due process before being terminated, which has been entirely circumvented by Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas government. In the private sector, thousands of maquila workers have also been laid off with the sudden closure of six plants since the middle of 2022. Many of those workers, mostly women, were unionized and never saw their last paychecks.

The Bukele administration has also politicized granting union credentials, which are required for unions to negotiate with employers and perform other official union duties. In 2021, over 400 unions (about half of all unions in the country) were left without credentials, rendering them paralyzed in negotiations with employers.

At least sixteen union members have also been imprisoned during El Salvador’s now-indefinite State of Exception, imposed in March of 2022. Alfaro highlighted the case of three union members, working for the San Marcos municipal government, who were imprisoned after protesting a lack of pay. Although a judge ordered their release at the beginning of August, they remain in prison. Francisco Antonio Lizama, one of the imprisoned union members, is a nationally recognized union leader and a member of the Labor Justice Roundtable. Another union member and employee for the Mejicanos municipality, José Bonilla, was arrested in April of 2022 while playing outside of his house with his daughter. Six months later, he died in custody. The Attorney General’s office never presented any evidence linking him to gangs. On September 5, 2022, the day of his funeral, a judge dismissed his case.

In January, unionized employees of the Soyapango municipality, also demanding backpay, were also detained under the country’s State of Exception and some of them remain in prison eight months later. Responding on Twitter, National Assembly member Anabel Belloso of the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party, highlighted the threat of the State of Exception on unionized workers by tweeting, “I condemn the use of police force and arbitrary arrests against workers of the Mayor's Office of Soyapango who decided to protest the non-payment of their salaries and Christmas bonuses. Demanding rights is not a crime, embezzling public funds is.”

This uptick in public employees protesting a lack of pay is, at least in part, the result of widespread budget crises facing municipalities across the country with the Bukele administration's near elimination of federal Social and Economic Development Funds (FODES), which has resulted in municipalities running out of money to pay their workers. Earlier this month, sanitation workers in Zacatecoluca, protesting two months without pay, engaged in a three-day partial strike. With trash building up on the streets, the municipal government, run by Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party, brought in prisoners to break the strike and subsequently suspended workers who had taken action against the municipality’s failure to provide them with a paycheck.

Retaliation against organized labor in central government institutions has also recently made headlines. The eleven member board of directors of the Ministry of Culture Union, including its secretary general, Basilio Ayala, was fired in early September after denouncing the conduct of the vice minister. Eleven other union members were also fired and the union’s headquarters was raided by police and Ministry of Culture officials. In July, 30 seventh-year medical students, working in rotations at various public hospitals, were indefinitely suspended. Their suspensions came in retaliation for holding a press conference in support of two colleagues who were suspended for speaking out on Twitter about their workload following a deadly stampede during a soccer match.

Two public healthcare union secretary generals have also been illegally fired in recent weeks. Silvia Navarette of the Health Workers Union (SITRASALUD) and Arístides Pérez SIGPTEES, a public sector nurses union, were among 22 people fired after participating in an August 8 press conference denouncing months of unpaid wages. None of these firings followed legally required processes for unionized workers, and ignored specific protections afforded to union leaders acting in service of their members.

Systematic attacks on workers and their unions are cause for concern in any context. Under an indefinite State of Exception that suspends due process laws, the stakes are far greater. And with union leaders currently imprisoned as a direct result of their union activity, the Bukele government has shown its willingness to apply draconian measures to limit dissent. Federal government-imposed budget restrictions and institutional closures have also dealt a blow to organized labor. The recently-announced closures of INSAFORP and INJUVE show that this trend is not slowing down.

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