As U.S. OKs New Trade Deals, Salvadoran Workers Fight Their Fall-Out
from Labor Notes - by Leah Wilson Legal maneuvering and union-busting threaten to crush the organizing that has unified workers across transnational companies in El Salvador. But Salvadoran unions and their allies are fighting to protect their fragile gains. Hundreds rallied Monday outside the offices of the Supreme Court, including members of the Telecommunications Industrial Union and the AVX Factory Workers’ Union. The transnational companies are attacking these two leading private sector unions, harassing and firing union members and appealing to a corrupt legal system to strip the unions’ legal standing. Telecommunications workers founded their union in 2003 after years of hard organizing that unified workers from the transnational telecommunications companies that flocked to El Salvador following the 1998 privatization of the state-owned telecom by a right-wing government. The attacks on El Salvador’s unions come as the U.S. Senate is expected to vote today to extend free-trade agreements to Colombia, South Korea, and Panama. The U.S. approved a similar trade deal that includes El Salvador, known as CAFTA, in 2005. When President Obama visited in March, thousands of members of El Salvador’s union, community, and environmental groups protested the powers and protections that CAFTA granted to transnational corporations. A mining company brought a $77 million lawsuit against El Salvador for failing to approve an environmental license. Four anti-mining activists have been killed as tensions rose around the controversial project.
The notoriously anti-union transnational telecoms that set up shop in El Salvador—like América Móvil—never accepted the union, and “they used the influence they had” to fight it, said union Secretary General Wilfredo Berríos. A Mexican telecommunications company, América Móvil is owned by billionaire Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man. The telecoms ignored Supreme Court decisions in the union’s favor and denied it legal recognition until 2009, when government power switched hands and a new labor minister granted the union legitimacy. AVX union members, who assemble electronics at the transnational Kyocera-AVX’s maquila (or factory), were also denied official recognition until the new minister took office. Kyocera is one of América Móvil’s biggest parts providers. “We began to organize in 2007 in response to dangerous working conditions,” explained Marielos de León, the union’s secretary general. Management responded by firing 34 union members. After both unions were officially recognized, the bosses decided to take their anti-union attacks to the court system. They filed cases calling for the dissolution of both unions. When the lower labor courts found in favor of both unions, the transnationals turned to a higher court and won. The unions are appealing to the Supreme Court, but face a new obstacle—the labor minister decided to bend to pressure from the transnationals and effectively canceled the legal status of both unions. The move shocked union members, who remembered the labor minister’s history as a union leader at the formerly state-owned telecommunications company. “We marched together in the streets in the ’80s,” Berríos said.
On Monday, the unionists and their allies called on the Supreme Court to issue a swift decision on their appeals and to purge the labor courts of corrupt judges. Two magistrates have sons who are lawyers for a firm that represents the transnational companies. According to de León, “both lawyers use their family connections to influence decisions in the labor courts.” The unionists and their allies also marched to the Ministry of Labor and demanded the minister reverse his illegal decision to dissolve the unions. According to the Salvadoran Labor Code, the only way a union can be dissolved is if its members begin a cancellation process or if it falls below 34 members—neither of which is true of the unions. Representatives of both unions presented more than 500 letters from national and international organizations backing their position. Labor ministry officials took the letters and noted the dissent but offered no solutions. Union leaders are especially concerned about members’ safety and job security. Without the formal protections provided by legal unions, members could be subject to reprisal firings. De León reports that unionized workers at the AVX-Kyocera plant are already suffering harassment from managers and members at three locals are already suffering reprisal firings. More than 100 workers at the three locals have been fired, eight of whom were on the board of directors at their locals. “This illegal decision demonstrates the immense power that anti-union transnationals have over our government,” Berríos said. “We will not accept it. Our right to unionize was won through the struggle of many compañeros and compañeras, many of whom died in the struggle.”
Leah Wilson is a member of CISPES, a grassroots U.S. organization dedicated to supporting the Salvadoran people’s struggle for self-determination and social and economic justice.