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Workers struggle in El Salvador

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
San Salvador, El Salvador

Just 10 days before he was killed in El Salvador in 1989, Jesuit Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría pleaded to an audience in Barcelona, Spain: “Because we work not only in theory but in the face-to-face cause of people who are unjustly treated, I am asking you to bear personal witness to the situation in Nicaragua and El Salvador and to help us.”

Ellacuría’s outcry was for poor people to negotiate their way out of poverty through labor unions. He explained, “I must here acknowledge the merciless killing of union leaders by a car bomb a few days ago with the precise intent of shutting down the FMLN’s [the rebel group Farabundo Marti Liberación Nacional] negotiations with the government.”

His cry dissolved in the silence of his death. Ellacuría, who was murdered along with five other Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter, advocated not rebellion but an open dialogue for better living standards in the fields and in the factories. That petition for sound, dignified exchange met its counterpoint in heedless military power.

Leaders from the same unions whose silencing Ellacuría had protested continue today to cry out for the right to bargain and continue to face impasse and intimidation instead of good faith bargaining. “We are in a war between the rich and the poor,” said Manuel Vasquez, general secretary of El Salvador’s Public Workers Union, in an interview in January. “President Francisco Flores has proceeded to privatize our schools, our utilities including telephone, water, electricity and now medical care since his coming to office in June 1999.”

Vasquez added, “Not only are the costs of schools, electricity, telephone service and medical care escalating out of the average family’s reach, but there is a proposal to lower our minimum wage, which fails, as it stands, to cover the cost of buying food alone. Housing, necessary clothing and basic health care are out of most people’s reach.”

Vasquez came to power as a union leader by replacing Alejandro Jaco, who had been assassinated while serving as chief negotiator for the Santa Ana Region. Vasquez himself has more recently been threatened and has suffered an attack on his life during the current protest against both the loss of jobs and the cuts to services resulting from the Flores government’s privatization policies. Manuel Vasquez carries with him a copy of the Salvadoran Constitution, which he charges the present government with violating, particularly concerning its guarantees to protect and advocate for the well being of the people.

The crucial issue at the moment is the right of Salvadoran labor unions to negotiate.

Vasquez along with Oscar Aguilar, head of the medical doctors’ union, and Wilfredo Berrios, fired head of the telephone workers’ union, are in the street with hospital workers in their third month of a strike that has closed clinics, surgery facilities and eliminated all medical care except for emergency services in most areas.

Mass layoffs

International Banks want the Salvadoran government to privatize human services, eliminating conditions for a sanitary, healthy, literate and functional life for the great majority of the people. That privatizing also brings about mass layoffs in a country whose unemployment rate is already 60 percent. Salvador’s labor unions are negotiating to keep both the services and the jobs.

More than 10,000 hospital workers employed by El Salvador’s Social Security Institute have been on strike since Nov. 16, 1999, to oppose the privatization of the medical care system, which serves the nation’s poorest communities. In response to the strike, the administration fired 221 of the most active union members, resulting in an impasse whereby the chief administrator of Social Security, Vilma de Escobar, has refused to promise reinstatement of fired workers.

In this stalemate, the Salvadoran Ministry of Labor has found the government administrators in violation of the workers’ labor contract and has issued an order for the workers to be reinstated. No such action will occur, however, until the Supreme Court has heard the government’s appeal. President Flores has declared the strike over. The people remain in the street.

In 1979, the year before he was gunned down while saying Mass, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero commented from the pulpit that “… the workers’ movement in our country -- as recently demonstrated by a number of striking unions -- has so very much to tell us, above all, the solidarity among labor unions which this movement has awakened.” Romero identified El Salvador’s hope as resting in the legal and economic reality of poor people being empowered to organize into labor unions through which they might voice their hope for a better life. Speaking of the strikes he had witnessed, Romero reflected that active unions represented “something new that has been born among us.” He then said, “ ... and a life that has been born must never be cut off. It must be examined and guided, such a life must never be suffocated.” That suffocating silence has been a reality that Romero’s people have known in many forms.

There is no indigenous language spoken in El Salvador today because of the matanza or massacre of 1932 in which virtually all the Indians working on Salvadoran coffee plantations were killed during their revolt against oppressive living and working conditions. Salvadorans know that silence. Their Guatemalan, Mexican and Panamanian neighbors continue to speak and hear Native American languages. In recalling their Nahuatl ancestors, Salvadorans relive a brutal history. Gen. Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, the head of state in El Salvador from 1931 to 1944, has been lauded as a national hero for his use of military power in putting down Indian and farm worker movements. The museum today devoted to his memory displays not only his arsenal but also his patronizing philosophy: “It is good that children go barefoot. That way they can better receive the beneficial effluvia of the planet, the vibrations of the earth” -- an irrational theory to apologize for the nakedness that accompanies poverty and disease.

Ultimate cost

The massacre of 1932 and its military leaders have shaped the more recent history of Salvadoran death squads over the 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992. Among the human rights atrocities was the massacre at El Mozote, carried out on Dec. 10, 1981, early in that war. More than 1,000 villagers were slaughtered, first the men, then the women and finally the children. Those historic moments -- the price extracted from labor organizers and others who attempted to challenge those in power -- color today’s attempts to unionize. Salvadorans know the silence and ultimate cost that can accompany such efforts.

Romero’s pro-worker homily of May 1, 1979, appears today as if its words were painted in an elaborate urban graffiti against a mural of El Salvador’s muted and voiceless victims. To a congregation, which later witnessed his assassination, he extended “blessings on the workers both in the fields and in the factories who worry, who search for solutions, who urge that their rights be taken into account and who seek to meet their responsibilities to their employers through dialogue that is sincere and honest and always based upon facts.” Romero persisted in wishing for a miracle to accomplish the modest hope of respectful, accurate dialogue between the poor and the rich.

Approximately 2 million Salvadorans today live in the United States. That represents the largest proportion of any Latin American country to have emigrated north. With El Salvador’s present population at about 6 million, Salvadoran-Americans have become a significant minority both here and there. Living and working in the United States, Salvadorans represent the memories of oppressive silence. They mourn the loss of parents, siblings and neighbors who were “disappeared” by death squads during the war and its aftermath.

Salvadoran-Americans know the price of political silence. They also know the words of Ellacuría, Romero and many others who have bid for basic rights to negotiate. The struggle for rights to equal treatment transcends borders as Salvadorans enter the American labor scene in which strikers also can be replaced, unions can be broken by management law firms and workers can expect to check their free speech and democratic spirit at the door.

Americans of all creeds, races and backgrounds can attest to the universality of Romero’s meditative prayer “for the rights to form labor unions to be seen as a natural right and not perceived as a danger and a threat.” American consumers examining the labels on their clothing will note the products of Kathy Lee Gifford and The Gap assembled in El Salvador’s maquilas or sweatshops. According to Salvadoran union organizer, Giovanni Fuentes, the efforts of women and men who work in sweatshops to organize have repeatedly failed. “Workers are fired as soon as they are identified to be union supporters.” Fuentes, who attended Harvard University’s School of Labor Relations, noted that, “Everyone loses, American workers who have been laid off from their jobs as well as the Salvadoran workers who are taking the work with terrible pay and living in terrible conditions.”

He noted with a degree of irony that Flores pronounced him a “bad Salvadoran” for advocating that factory work without basic labor rights such as the freedom to organize has been contributing not to economic development but to deeper and more desperate impoverishment of his people.

The banana stand

“Did you ever own a banana stand?” asks Fabio Castillo, whom some say could contend for the presidency in the 2004 elections. Fabio Castillo describes El Salvador as “the poor person who goes to the banana stand and asks for a banana on the promise of paying with interest the next week. This continues for 10 or 11 weeks until, finally, the poor person belongs to the banana stand owner.” Fabio Castillo is the general secretary of the FMLN. An attorney and law professor, he asked, “Do you see the analogy?” In this manner he continually refers to Farabundo Marti, the campesino philosopher for whom the party is named. Castillo lives the ethic of Marti, who was executed at the end of the 1932 massacre of coffee plantation workers, crying out for the ideal of humble dignity -- an ideal that will take a combination of genius and determination to accomplish. Today, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have witnessed, he explained, the multiplying of El Salvador’s debts by escalating margins. A visitor asked, “Is the problem that banks don’t know anything about bananas?” He punctuated the air, “Exactly! Nor do they know anything about eating bananas or being truly hungry.”

Privatization of services and utilities and building sweatshops are just two of the measures that the Flores government has been implementing in order to satisfy the banks to whom El Salvador is indebted, asserted Roger Gutierrez, secretary general of El Salvador’s federation of independent labor unions. “What we are losing in the process is not only standards of living such as housing, food, medical care and education, but we are losing the family as single parents become sentenced to shift work. These are the same people who had, in earlier generations, the ability to produce food, make clothing and teach their children to do the same. It was a very basic life, but at least it was a life. Sweatshops have fractured that life.”

The people living the fractured life in its poorest form are those who reside in San Salvador’s old trash dump at Nejapa. Their shacks are made of wooden slats or corrugated iron taken from the garbage heaps. As trucks deposit mountains of refuse, the people who live in this wasteland follow, sorting through the filth for glass and/or metal that they heap together and sell by the pound. The majority of the residents of the dump are single mothers, their children, dogs and a species of huge vultures with hooked, squawking beaks. Community organizer, William Hernandez, commented that “many of the teenage boys here look for glue to sniff -- anything to take them out of this desperation.” Quite aside from the toxicity of living on a landfill made up of burned garbage, the vultures pose an additional threat to the people’s health. They are, in essence, big rats with wings.

Hernandez noted that there is a new dump on the other side of Nejapa. It employs over 60 men and women who -- in tandem with consultants from a French Canadian firm -- have established a waste treatment method that processes the waste back into the land gradually, safely. “These two sides of Nejapa are two sides of life in El Salvador,” said Hernandez. “So, there is hope.”

On March 12 Salvadorans will vote to elect the alcaldes -- mayors -- as well as legislators or deputados. If the process remains free of election fraud, the workers and the people they serve may gain an opportunity to end the chronic impasse of the health care strike. With new legislators, the Salvadoran government might halt the privatizing and slashing of human services, the laying off of workers, the intimidation of women and men in the sweatshops.

Incumbents with heavy military and police support, however, can deter movements for democracy in the factories, in the fields and in the communities of a poor people.

Teaching and learning are greater forces than the most debilitating famine, the most rampant illness or confining prison, said Rafael Coto, secretary general of El Salvador’s teachers’ union. “Over years of witnessing thousands of our members being disappeared, exiled and incarcerated, our union has collectively articulated our vocation to teach in oppressive times.” It is why, he said, the teachers’ union is central to reform in El Salvador.

Coto told of teachers leading hunger strikes, marching on the capital and leaving their schoolhouses to assist the people of the farms and the factories. “We have achieved a precious recognition,” he said. “Our people’s poverty and oppression inspire our work in the cause of learning. As teachers we need to know the needs of the children. We must have sympathy with students’ families. Before teaching, we must have learned from the people whom we are there to serve. That is why we are activists for a stronger awareness of the basic rights that the Flores government has placed under attack. … And our children’s spirited minds will be our guiding hope.”

John Lavin, director of St. Joseph’s University’s Comey Institute of Industrial Relations, traveled to El Salvador this January. Quotations from speeches by Jesuit Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría and Archbishop Oscar Romero are Lavin’s translations. His e-mail address is lavin@sju.edu

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2000