On Day of the Salvadoran Unionist, Workers March, Denounce Bukele Administration Attacks on Labor

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On October 31, organized labor took to the streets on the Day of the Salvadoran Unionist, uniting in struggle against what they denounce as systematic attacks against workers’ rights under the Bukele administration.

The historic day commemorates the October 31, 1989, bombing of the National Federation of Salvadoran Workers (FENASTRAS) union hall in San Salvador, which killed nine union leaders including Secretary General Febe Elizabeth Velásquez, and injured nearly 30 more. Each year the labor movement honors the martyred labor leaders with demonstrations and marches through the streets of San Salvador uplifting the long struggle of the working class. This year’s remembrance, however, put front and center the movement’s current crisis: an urgent fight against an administration that, despite its populist rhetoric, is waging war on the entire Salvadoran population–and especially on the working class, organizations say. 

Various unions turned out to demonstrate across the capital city. One march began from Cuscatlán park and ended at the Ministry of Labor, where organizations reiterated an ongoing demand: the immediate delivery of union credentials. As background: In August of 2020, President Bukele vetoed Legislative Decree 694 to renew union credentials to the boards of directors of a variety of unions in both the public and private sector. Since then, Labor Minister Rolando Castro has withheld those credentials from over 400 unions, effectively leaving them without leadership and unable to collect dues or to bargain. The government’s objective, popular movement and labor organizations say, is to immobilize the unions, buy time, and install new union boards loyal to the administration in their place.

Organizations also demanded reforms to the labor code to guarantee lifetime pensions, something President Bukele promised to do more than a year ago. In September 2021, the President announced that within 30 days he would present a pension reform bill to the Legislative Assembly to guarantee a decent pension for all Salvadorans. More than a year later, people are still waiting: “We don’t have a law to guarantee a dignified pension,” a worker said.  “We demand a decent and fair pension for the working class!” marchers chanted as they  moved through the streets.

Unions also called on the administration to raise the minimum wage, which has been stagnant for two consecutive years, to end the constant violations of freedom of association, and to address long-ignored labor complaints brought before the Civil Service Court. They also demanded an immediate end to the State of Exception, under which an untold number of organized workers have been unjustly arrested and detained without warrants; at least one union leader has died while in custody.

Since before his inauguration in 2019, the Salvadoran popular movement has been warning that the Bukele project, despite its populist rhetoric, was, at its root, about advancing President Bukele’s own interests and those of allied national and transnational investors–“creating a new caste of economic power”–at the expense of the working class. This was quickly confirmed during one of his first orders of business as president: a meeting with the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, where he declared El Salvador open for business to foreign capital (“Dinner is served” were his exact words.)

Three years in, the social movement’s warnings about President Bukele’s war on the working class continue to materialize. Policies to this end have included massive layoffs across state and municipal institutions (at times enforced by national police); exponential growth in public debt resulting in austerity measures; broad cuts to social spending; concessions for speculative, elite urban megaprojects that are financially out of reach for nearly all working-class Salvadorans (and amid ongoing protest against them); lucrative contracts and increasing privatization of public agencies; displacement of poor and working-class families and communities for the construction of prisons, tourist attractions, and the notoriously disastrous “Bitcoin City,” among many others. This medicina amarga (bitter medicine) that Bukele himself foretold in his inauguration speech has meant the “theft of billions of dollars from labor’s national wealth–the product of our work,” said a representative from the Popular Resistance and Rebellion Bloc (BRP) who accompanied the October 31 demonstrations.   

A central target of this war on the working class has been El Salvador’s historic labor movement. At this year’s commemoration, organizations characterized Bukele attacks on unions as having “a cynicism never before seen.” (This is saying something for a movement that struggled for decades against consecutive hard-right ARENA administrations that pushed privatization and attempted to weaken labor at every turn, including routine denial of credentials to democratically elected leaders).

Beyond withholding union authorizations and firing thousands of organized public sector workers, the Bukele administration carried out a violent takeover in 2019 of the democratically-elected board of directors of El Salvador’s largest - and staunchly anti-privatization - union, the Social Security Institute Workers’ Union (STISSS) and installed its own board later that year. In 2020, it attempted to divide striking maquila workers who were protesting unjustified firings, withholding of wages and benefits, and other abuses in the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, under the State of Exception, the administration threatened to imprison workers who marched on May Day, accusing them of being “gang collaborators.”

Despite this climate of intimidation and repression, unionists renewed on the Day of the Salvadoran Unionist their resolve to continue the “historic struggle of the martyrs. . . today more necessary than ever.” They remain clear in analysis, undeterred by the threats they face, and “constant in the commitment to the defense of workers’ rights and to the struggle of the working class.”

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