Labor and Campesino Groups

El Salvador Table of Contents

Although labor confederations have existed for decades in El Salvador, their political input has been limited by their small membership--officially, only nonagricultural workers have been allowed to organize--and by the exclusionary nature of the political system. Under military rule, the only unions with influence were those with ties to the armed forces or its associated ruling party. The political ferment that began to make itself felt in the late 1970s, however, was reflected in the labor movement. The real and pressing grievances of workers and peasants, who began to organize into unsanctioned interest groups of their own, led them to enlist in the growing number of unions affiliated with the so-called mass organizations or popular organizations. These organizations took a much more militant, antigovernment line than did the old, established labor unions. Ultimately, the leaders of the mass organizations, supportive of the revolutionary goals of the FMLN, were more concerned with the promotion of their political agenda than with the attainment of better wages and working conditions for the rank and file. By the early 1980s, strikes, demonstrations, and protests by these groups had contributed to an atmosphere of uncertainty, instability, and political polarization in El Salvador. In the violent right-wing backlash that followed, members of moderate, prodemocratic, nonconfrontational unions were murdered along with the militant supporters of the mass organizations. This repression--both official and unofficial--temporarily removed labor groups as participants in the political arena. The situation began to change as democratic institutions evolved in the wake of the 1982 Constituent Assembly elections.

Duarte won the presidency with the support of a number of groups in Salvadoran society who felt that their interests could best be served by the extension of economic reform. Most of these groups--middle-class professionals, small business people, labor unions, and peasants--also believed that a just resolution to the civil conflict was a necessary prerequisite to economic reactivation. In terms of numbers, the most important of these sectors were the labor and peasant organizations. In February 1984, Duarte signed a "social pact" with the major centrist grouping, the Popular Democratic Unity (Unidad Popular Democratica--UPD). This agreement called for the full implementation of agrarian reform, government support for union rights, incorporation of union and peasant leaders into the government, and continued efforts to curtail human rights violations and to end the civil conflict.

From the point of view of labor and peasant groups, the Duarte government failed to follow through on the pledges made under the social pact, and, as a result, the UPD began to unravel. In early 1984, the UPD had been the leading labor and peasant grouping in both numbers and influence. It was an umbrella group made up of the country's leading labor federation- -the Federation of Unions of the Construction Industry and Kindred Activities, Transportation, and Other Activities (Federacion de Sindicatos de la Industria de la Construccion, Similares, Transporte y de Otras Actividades--Fesinconstrans); its largest peasant group, the Salvadoran Communal Union (Union Comunal Salvadorena--UCS); and three smaller groups. In August 1984, some three months after Duarte's election, the leadership of the three smallest UPD affiliates called a press conference to denounce Duarte for his lack of compliance with the social pact. Leaders of Fesinconstrans and the UCS, who were not consulted before or included in the press conference, publicly dissociated themselves from the statements made there. This incident precipitated a political and ideological split within the labor movement that showed little sign of abating by the late 1980s.

Documents seized by government forces after a shootout with a rebel group in April 1985 shed some light on the leadership crisis within the UPD. According to the documents, three union leaders (although not named, they were presumed by most analysts to be the leaders who called the 1984 press conference) were collaborating clandestinely with the FMLN and were receiving bribes to assume a confrontational stance with the government. The coordination of actions among the FMLN, leftist unions, and certain militant human rights and refugee groups seemed to be confirmed by another cache of rebel documents seized in April 1987. Whatever the motivation, the split in the UPD leadership prompted the more moderate leadership of Fesinconstrans and the UCS to explore the possibility of establishing a new labor confederation. This organization, christened the Democratic Workers' Confederation (Confederacion de Trabajadores Democraticos--CTD), was founded in December 1984. In March 1986, the CTD and the UCS joined with a number of other labor and peasant groups to form the National Union of Workers and Peasants (Union Nacional de Obreros y Campesinos--UNOC). UNOC characterized itself as a labor organization supportive of the moderate political left; it advocated the continuation of the democratic process in El Salvador as well as the political incorporation of workers and the making of improvements in their quality of life.

The leaders of the more militant and radical labor and peasant groups almost simultaneously established a parallel umbrella group to UNOC, dubbing it the National Union of Salvadoran Workers (Union Nacional de Trabajadores Salvadorenos-- UNTS). It included the remaining members of the UPD, several established leftist labor groups, some of which maintained ties to the World Federation of Trade Unions, a front group of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; a peasant organization known as the National Association of Peasants (Asociacion Nacional de Campesinos--ANC); and a leftist student group, the General Association of Salvadoran University Students (Asociacion General de Estudiantes Universitarios Salvadorenos--AGEUS). Although it claimed that its membership rivaled that of the 350,000-strong UNOC, most observers agreed that the UNTS represented only 40,000 to 50,000 members at most.

President Duarte, the armed forces, and representatives of the United States maintained that the UNTS was penetrated and controlled by the FMLN. This allegation was not universally accepted, however. Whether coordinated with FMLN strategy or not, the actions of the UNTS appeared calculated to undermine the legitimacy of the Duarte government and to promote unrest and instability in urban areas, particularly San Salvador. UNTS affiliates staged numerous strikes, mainly in the capital, most of which were declared illegal by the government because the demands of the union leadership were judged to be more political than economic in nature. Some unions demanded the president's resignation as a condition of settlement. Many of the strikes were endorsed by the FMLN over the clandestine radio station Radio Venceremos operated by the guerrilla group known as the People's Revolutionary Army (Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo-- ERP). The largest mass antigovernment demonstration organized by the UNTS took place in February 1986; estimates of the number of participants ranged from 7,000 to 12,000. A generally progovernment rally organized by UNOC the following month drew a considerably larger turnout, estimated at up to 65,000.

Although it opposed the militant strategy of the UNTS and supported the reforms decreed by the junta governments and maintained under the PDC, UNOC also displayed disillusionment with Duarte and his seeming inability to improve workers' standard of living or to wind down the insurgency. UNOC's influence, however, began to wane by 1985. This development was attributable mainly to internal leadership struggles within Fesinconstrans and the UCS. Ironically, the catalyst for these conflicts was found not in the failure of the social pact with the PDC but in its partial fulfillment. Labor and peasant leaders who had been appointed to government posts, mainly in the institutions administering agrarian reform and credit facilities, were exploiting the patronage potential of their positions to expand their personal following among the rank and file. Resentment over this tactic prompted challenges from union leaders and members who either felt excluded from the patronage process or who objected to the practice on ethical grounds. UNOC's lack of concerted involvement in the PDC legislative victory of 1985 lessened its influence with the government and perhaps made it easier for Duarte to follow the course of economic austerity that eventually drew fire from both the private sector and labor groups from across the political spectrum.

Just as the UNTS represented the militant leftist position among Salvadoran labor and peasant groups and UNOC affected a more moderate, center-left stance, there were also conservative labor groups still functioning in the late 1980s. The two leading organizations in this category were the General Confederation of Unions (Confederacion General de Sindicatos--CGS) and the National Confederation of Workers (Confederacion Nacional de Trabajadores--CNT). Their numbers were small--CGS membership was estimated at 7,000 in 1986--and their political influence correspondingly low. By 1988, however, as Arena took control of the legislative branch and seemed poised to win the presidency, the position of these conservative labor groups may well have been enhanced, if only because moderate organizations such as UNOC were all but certain to see their leverage with the government diminish considerably. The radical UNTS, which was condemned as a rebel front group even by the Duarte administration (although it seemed clear that the majority of rank-and-file UNTS members were not FMLN sympathizers), could look forward to little or no sympathy from an Arena government.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress