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AFL-CIO is Spanish for union busting; how the U.S. and big labor fight communism by opposing popular unions and setting up unpopular ones.


It seemed the Reagan administration had finally gotten smart. Faced with increasing opposition to the centrist administration of Jose Napoleon Duarte in El Salvador, it decided that instead of peddling exploding cigars or helping right-wing death squads it would use covert action to compete for the hearts of the people. In 1986, with left-wing influence in trade unions on the rise, the Reagan administration, working with an international arm of the AFL-CIO, helped set up a parallel trade union movement that would represent workers while shunning communist influence.

One problem: the new unions haven't quite gotten the hang of appealing to the masses. For example, at Confiteria Americana, a candy factory in downtown San Salvador, management runs the new union. Private security guards armed with shotguns and high-caliber pistols stand at the entrance. "All the private employers have them,' said the company's manager, a member of the new trade union. "They're necessary for security.' He's half right. Most companies hire guards to keep burglars away at night, but the candy factory guards patrol only during the day. Their job is to keep the workers from striking. Workers who stay active in the old union have been told they might be fired, no small threat in a country with 40 percent unemployment. Around El Salvador the story is the same: a number of new unions have been formed to replace or compete with existing unions. They exist not to respond to worker demands, but to provide the government with a vehicle to control worker demands. Although most gains by Duarte's parallel unions have been modest, in a few key areas the parallel unions have taken over completely. And while both parties deny it, CIA and other classified documents show that both the AFL-CIO and the U.S. government have helped create and implement a policy that is anti-democratic--and backfiring.

The State Department has had good reason to be concerned. A centrist politician caught between two violent extremes, Duarte has been worthy of U.S. support, but deteriorating economic conditions, government austerity measures, and continuing civil war have eaten away at his most important political base--the labor movement. And it is clear that the communist insurgents have increased their influence in the labor movement. What they have lost to Salvadoran troops in military skirmishes, leftists have apparently made up in factory organizing.

Communist infiltration? Unhappy workers? Sounds like a job for the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO's Latin-American branch, the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), was formed in the wake of the Cuban Revolution to battle communism by building centrist, pro-U.S. labor movements. Since 1962, AIFLD has trained more than 500,000 Latin American unionists in democratic values. The organization gets more than 90 percent of its budget from the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) and the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), roughly $20 million, or half the AFL-CIO domestic budget.

The organization is not without its critics. Liberal groups have charged that it helped destabilize left-wing democratic governments in the Dominican Republic and Chile and that it works too closely with the CIA. But AIFLD has often played a positive role. In El Salvador in the late sixties, it helped peasants buy land and organized community development projects. In fact, it did this so well that in 1973 the military junta kicked it out of the country.

When a reformist military junta took over the presidential palace in 1979, it invited AIFLD back to counter the left-led organized labor movement allied with revolutionary groups. While AIFLD opposed the left-leaning labor groups, it also pushed for positive change, helping write the government's agrarian reform laws and organizing a coalition of Salvadoran unionists. The Popular Democratic Union became the largest labor coalition in the country by 1982, in large part because it was one of the only labor coalitions allowed. It was a key base of support for Duarte and his Christian Democrats in the 1984 presidential election.

In return for the Popular Democratic Union's support, Duarte signed a "Social Pact,' in which he promised to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the guerrillas, prosecute human rights violators, allow the left to participate more fully in elections, and appoint union leaders to government positions.

After the election, Duarte tried to keep some of the bargain. He made overtures to the guerrillas and appointed several unionists to government posts. But within a few months, it was apparent that Duarte was not willing, or able, to push much farther. Land reform initiatives stalled. Talks with the guerrillas collapsed as both the government and the rebels showed intransigence. By mid-1985, the Social Pact had disintegrated. In January 1986 so too did Duarte's political support. Duarte imposed a program of economic austerity that hit El Salvador's peasants and wage-earning classes hard. Bus fares, for example, rose 20 percent and prices for food staples, such as beans, tripled in one year. Although wages, most notably in the public sector, have increased, the cost of living has more than doubled since Duarte came to office. Duarte has taken the heat for these austerity measures, but a classified CIA report in September 1986 reveals that from the day he took office Duarte had resisted pressure from the Reagan administration to take these steps. The administration wanted the Salvadorans to become less dependent on foreign aid--the U.S. provides about half the country's budget, $1 million a day--and argued that the austerity measures would stabilize the economy and attract foreign investment.

The measures have had a different effect. Centrist labor groups representing 30,000 unionists, angry that Duarte had reneged on the Social Pact, joined Marxist-led unions, with about 50,000 members, to form a labor coalition called the National Union of Salvadoran Workers. Strikes and work stoppages have become more common and militant, frightening foreign investors as much as high inflation ever did. The government response to the labor unrest: if they won't join us, lick 'em.

The U.S., AIFLD, and Duarte's government all deny they helped establish the parallel trade union movement. But classified U.S. documents show that they worked together as early as November 1985 to squelch labor agitation. That month, the Salvadoran government gave AIFLD and the U.S. embassy a copy of a report recommending a crackdown and then asked AIFLD to help develop "legal means' to overcome the "paralysis' created by labor unrest in the public sector.

They were apparently aware that over force could make matters worse. "Political violence would lend credibility to insurgent propaganda, badly weaken Duarte's domestic and international statute, and perhaps convince some former donors to renew funding to the FMLN [guerrillas],' a CIA report from September states.

U.S. embassy and AIFLD officials were determined to prevent the opposition labor coalition from capitalizing on the unpopularity of the austerity measures. So they set up a pro-Duarte labor coalition--the National Union of Workers and Campesinos (UNOC) and parallel government-backed unions in the public and private sector. "Much of the credit for UNOC's creation goes to AIFLD,' a March 1986 U.S. embassy memorandum states. "AIFLD country director Clemente Hernandez worked tirelessly to bring UNOC founders together. AIFLD held a meeting with Salvadoran democratic labor leaders in Miami several weeks ago to discuss ways of unifying democratic labor and UNOC arose out of that meeting.'

In theory, of course, there's nothing wrong with trying to fight communism through the creation of a competitive labor movement. Unfortunately, this one has not jumped onto the top ten list of popular mass movements. Soon after the coalition was founded, AIFLD and the Christian Democrats helped organize a march to show the world Duarte still had genuine, enthusiastic labor support. But The New York Times reported that "most of the marchers, who were trucked in by government backers, seemed only to be doing what they were told.' Although coalition officials claim they are independent of Christian Democratic party control, numerous sources in the coalition said the demonstration was organized from the party's national headquarters in San Salvador and financed by AIFLD. And according to U.S. embassy documents, it was personally directed by Duarte's son, Alejandro.

More important than the rally was the creation of parallel unions. Here again, the Salvadoran government insists the unions are independent. But again, the U.S. left a paper trail showing the government actively involved in the creation of the new unions. A May 9, 1986, U.S. embassy memo states: "Democratic unions, especially [the Christian Democratic-affiliated branch of the UNOC] have been working with GOES [Government of El Salvador] either to take over leftist unions or to form rival democratic unions in leftist strongholds.' The memo specifically notes the Salvadoran government efforts to set up these unions in the sewage and water works, the agricultural ministry, and the telecommunications company. Government-backed unions have also been established among postal workers, Housing Institute employees, and high-school teachers. The teachers were a key group to "reorganize,' since they had been represented by a radical union with ties to the leftist guerrillas. In May, the union's leader was shot, allegedly by government troops.

It would be heartwarming to think that UNOC's success is based on a groundswell of support for Duarte, but other factors, such as AIFLD money, are behind it. For instance, AIFLD pays $4,000 a month to the construction federation controlled by UNOC leader Ricardo Soriano, a key organizer of parallel unions, according to high-ranking sources within his federation. AIFLD denies giving money to individual unions or leaders.

Workers note that failure to join the new union can be self-destructive. Holdouts are threatened with dismissal or accused of being communist sympathizers. In El Salvador, where right-wing death squads rarely wait for documentary evidence of communist sympathy, the mere accusation, can be hazardous to one's health. Opposition leaders who refuse to join the union have found themselves in prison, where they can be held incommunicado for two weeks. Labor activists comprise the largest group of political prisoners, according to the government's own prison lists. Unionists interviewed in Mariona prison claimed they had been subjected to psychological and occasionally physical torture. U.S. State Department sources say that abuse, such as prolonged food or sleep deprivation or immersion in filthy water, occurs in about one of five cases of imprisonment in El Salvador and Americas Watch claims such techniques are the dominant interrogation tools.

Finally, it has been helpful to UNOC that the body that certifies new unions is the Salvadoran government. In some cases it has authorized pro-government unions, or eliminated anti-Duarte ones, without holding real elections. For example, management set up a union at the 1,000-employee Industrias Unidas, one of the largest textile plants in El Salvador. To influence the outcome of a union election to be held in March 1986, AIFLD's deputy director Donald Kessler promised the union an $8,000 "loan.' According to The Wall Street Journal, Kessler told the union point-blank: "If we're elected, you'll get the loan.' On March 16, though, union officials backed by AIFLD walked out of the election. The Ministry of Labor ordered a second election in May, at which point the AIFLD-backed leaders left the general meeting and held a separate vote among their own supporters. Four days later, without explanation, the Ministry of Labor recognized that union.

The textile plant's original unionists, mostly unarmed women, went on strike to protest the decision. After 12 days, the government sent 159 national guardsmen to occupy the factory. Three days later the strike ended. The management of the factory, which was owned by a Japanese firm, then fired several hundred workers, destroying the original trade union. As in many other cases, replacements were hired only when they produced a recommendation from a friend or family member in the Christian Democratic party and agreed to join the new union.

UNOC's new parallel unions have made only minor inroads into workplaces still dominated by long-standing trade unions. But UNOC controls many peasant cooperative organizations, much of the construction industry, most municipal workers in San Salvador, and some individual firms such as the textile and candy factories. The more left-wing National Union of Salvadoran Workers dominates most of the public sector workforce, an equally large share of peasant organizations, and El Salvador's urban industrial base.

Besides death threats and bribes, what have workers gotten from their new alternative unions? Well, for one, workers have been part of a unique experiment in labor-management cooperation: Some unions have thrown out existing contracts and allowed management to write new ones. At Confiteria Americana, the biannual renewal of the contract that had been negotiated in 1979 was circumvented, and management is writing a new contract for the new parallel union to approve. At the first formal assembly of the candy factory's parallel union last September, management officials were visibly in charge. I was evicted from the meeting after one company/union official entered the room and asked why I was there.

More important, though, than their positions on particular contracts is their record on broader reform issues. The land reform, initiated in 1980, has affected only 18 percent of peasant families. Duarte insists that the redistribution of coffee farms will eventually proceed, but privately, government officials concede the political strength of the landowners makes the plan unlikely. The minimum wage for agricultural laborers, who work only when coffee or other export crops are in season, is $1.60 a day. Only 10 percent of the urban workforce is unionized, and their average hourly wage is about 40 cents. This year's inflation rate is projected to hit 60 percent; real wages have fallen abysmally behind.

Yet these new unions have not seriously opposed Duarte's austerity measures, fought for higher wages, or pressured the government to redistribute land. For example, prior to UNOC's first demonstration, labor leaders obtained a personal promise from Duarte that the land reform for coffee farms would proceed. But one and a half years later, with no such reform in sight, the unions have not questioned the government's failure. As a result, the left-influenced National Union of Salvadoran Workers, which persistently clamors for the reforms, has been considered more responsive to workers' needs. If the pattern continues, the rebel involvement in the unions is likely to become even greater. As one CIA report noted, "As their battlefield prospects continue to wane, we expect to see rebel commanders, who earlier rejected the political struggle, putting more money and manpower into strengthening their support among labor.' U.S. policymakers are well aware of the dangers of leaving social needs unment. "Deteriorating economic conditions have hurt Duarte's standing with workers and peasants--his traditional constituents--who are the key element of the guerrillas' political strategy,' the CIA report said.

U.S. officials do not fear a military victory of the left; the guerrilla brigades are too weak and the right and the army are too strong. They are concerned, though, that an increasingly vocal and militant organized opposition will provoke another wave of violent right-wing repression of the kind that racked the country more than six years ago. By splitting the labor movement through the parallel unions, the U.S. hopes to weaken that opposition. A little anti-democratic union-busting now, the reasoning goes, will avoid great carnage later.

But the strategy isn't working, and can't work. What they are splitting is Duarte's political base. The opposition movement continues to consolidate worker support for a simple reason. The more left-wing unions have responded to grievances, the pro-Duarte unions have not. The main result of AIFLD's union-busting is to make Duarte, in the eyes of the workers, resemble El Salvador's repressive military governments of the past.
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Author:Smyth, Frank
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1987
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