Labor and Peasant Organizations

Honduras Table of Contents

The organized labor movement of Honduras, traditionally the strongest in Central America, first began organizing in the early years of the twentieth century. The movement, however, gained momentum only with the great banana strike of 1954, at which point organized labor unions became a political force in the country, at times having an important impact on government policy. In that year, labor won the right to form unions legally and to engage in collective bargaining. In addition, the country's first national peasant organizations were formed in the mid-1950s, and later picked up momentum when an Agrarian Reform Law was enacted in 1962.

In the early 1990s, trade unions represented about 20 percent of the Honduran labor force and exerted considerable economic and political influence. According to the United States Department of State's 1992 human rights report, unions frequently participated in public rallies against government policies and made use of the media. Unions also gained wage and other concessions from employers through collective bargaining and the use of the right to strike. For example, in May 1992, direct negotiations between organized labor and the private sector led to a 13.7 percent increase in the minimum wage, the third consecutive annual increase.

Nevertheless, organized unions and peasant organizations still experienced significant difficulties in the early 1990s. Retribution against workers for trade union activity was not uncommon and the right to bargain collectively was not always guaranteed. Union activists at times were the target of political violence, including assassination, and workers were at times harassed or fired for their trade union activities. Several peasant leaders were killed for political reasons; and in a highly publicized May 1991 massacre, five members of a peasant organization were killed, reportedly by military members, because of a land dispute. The government also at times supported pro- government parallel unions over elected unions in an attempt to quiet labor unrest.

In 1993 Honduras had three major labor confederations: the Confederation of Honduran Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores de Honduras--CTH), claiming a membership of about 160,000 workers; the General Workers' Central (Central General de Trabajadores--CGT), claiming to represent 120,000 members; and the Unitary Confederation of Honduran Workers (Confederación Unitaria de Trabajadores de Honduras--CUTH), a new confederation formed in May 1992, with an estimated membership of about 30,000. The three confederations included numerous trade union federations, individual unions, and peasant organizations.

The CTH, the nation's largest trade confederation, was formed in 1964 by the nation's largest peasant organization, the National Association of Honduran Peasants (Asociación Nacional de Campesinos de Honduras--Anach), and by Honduran unions affiliated with the Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers (Organización Regional Interamericana de Trabajadores--ORIT), a hemispheric labor organization with close ties to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO). In the early 1990s, the confederation had three major components, the 45,000- member Federation of Unions of National Workers of Honduras (Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Nacionales de Honduras-- Fesitranh), the 22,000-member Central Federation of Honduran Free Trade Unions (Federación Central de Sindicatos Libres de Honduras), and the 2,200-member Federation of National Maritime Unions of Honduras (Federación de Sindicales Marítimas Nacionales de Honduras). In addition, Anach, claiming to represent between 60,000-80,000 members, was affiliated with Fesitranh. Fesitranh was by far the country's most powerful labor federation, with most of its unions located in San Pedro Sula and the Puerto Cortés Free Zone. The unions of the United States-owned banana companies and the United States-owned petroleum refinery also were affiliated with Fesitranh. The CTH received support from foreign labor organizations, including ORIT; the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD); and Germany's Friedreich Ebert Foundation. The CTH was an affiliate of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).

The CGT, first formed in 1970, but not legally recognized until 1982, was originally formed by the Christian Democrats and received external support from the World Confederation of Labor (WCL) and the Latin American Workers Central (Central Latinoamericana de Trabajadores--CLAT), a regional organization supported by Christian Democratic parties. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, the CGT leadership developed close ties to the PNH, and several leaders served in the Callejas government. Another national peasant organization, the National Union of Peasants (Unión Nacional de Campesinos--UNC), claiming a membership of 40,000, has been affiliated with the CGT for many years and is a principal force within the confederation.

The CUTH was formed in May 1992 by two principal labor federations, the Unitary Federation of Honduran Workers (Federación Unitaria de Trabajadores de Honduras--FUTH) and the Independent Federation of Honduran Workers (Federación Independiente de Trabajadores de Honduras--FITH), as well as several smaller labor groups, all critical of the Callejas government's strong neoliberal economic reform program. The Marxist FUTH, with an estimated 16,000 members in the early 1990s, was first organized in 1980 by three communist-influenced unions, but did not receive legal status until 1988. The federation had external ties with the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), the Permanent Congress for Latin American Workers Trade Union Unity (Congreso Permanente de Unidad Sindical de Trabajadores de América Latina--CPUSTAL), and the Central American Committee of Trade Union Unity (Comité de Unidad Sindical de Centroamérica--CUSCA). Its affiliations included water utility, university, electricity company, brewery, and teacher unions, as well as several peasant organizations, including the National Central of Farm Workers (Central Nacional de Trabajadores del Campo--CNTC), formed in 1985 and active in land occupations in the early 1980s.

FUTH also became affiliated with a number of leftist popular organizations in a group known as the Coordinating Committee of Popular Organizations (Comité Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Populares--CCOP) that was formed in 1984. The FITH, claiming about 13,000 members in the early 1990s, was granted legal status in 1988. Originally formed by dissident FUTH members, the federation consisted of fourteen unions.

Many Honduran peasant organizations were affiliated with the three labor confederations in the early 1990s. Anach was created and received legal recognition in 1962 in order to counter the communist-influenced peasant movement of the National Federation of Honduran Peasants (Federación Nacional de Campesinos de Honduras-- Fenach). In contrast, Fenach never received legal recognition. Its offices were destroyed following the 1963 military coup by Colonel Oswaldo López Arellano, and, in 1965, seven of Fenach's leaders who had taken up armed struggle against the government, including founder Lorenzo Zelaya, were killed by the military. Anach became the primary peasant organization and in 1967 became affiliated with the CTH.

The UNC, traditionally a principal rival of Anach and traditionally more radical than Anach, was established in 1970 but did not receive legal recognition until 1984. The UNC traces its roots to the community development organizations and peasant leagues established by the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s. The UNC was a founding member of the CGT and had ideological ties to the MDCH.

In addition to Anach and the UNC, another large peasant organization in the 1990s was the Honduran Federation of Agrarian Reform Cooperatives (Federación de Cooperativas de la Reforma Agraria de Honduras--Fecorah). The federation was formed in 1970 and received legal recognition in 1974. In the early 1990s, Fecorah had about 22,000 members.

There were numerous attempts to unify the nation's peasant organizations in the 1970s and 1980s, but the sector was characterized by numerous divisions, including ideological divisions. For some peasant organizations, political affiliation changed with changes in the government. Disillusionment with the neglect of unions and peasant organizations under the PLH administrations of the 1980s caused some groups to move toward the PNH. In 1988 the three major peasant organizations, Anach, the UNC, and Fecorah, along with smaller leftist peasant groupings, united under the banner of the Coordinating Council of Honduran Peasant Organizations (Consejo Coordinador de Organizaciones Campesinas de Honduras--Cocoh) to lobby for agrarian reform. Just four years later, however, in May 1992, the peasant movement was split by disagreement over the Callejas government's proposed agricultural modernization law. The three major peasant organizations all left Cocoh to form the National Peasants Council (Consejo Nacional de Campesinos--CNC), while leftist peasant organizations remained in Cocoh and actively demonstrated against the proposed agricultural modernization law.

From 1989 until 1992, the nation's major peasant organizations and labor federations, a confederation of cooperatives, and several professional organizations supported the "Platform of Struggle for the Democratization of Honduras." The objective of the campaign was to present far-reaching economic, social, and political reform proposals to the national government, which included issuing several documents and a manifesto. By 1993 however, this initiative had disappeared because of divisions among the disparate groups and, according to some observers, because of the Callejas government's success in coopting several organizations.

The organized peasant movement in Honduras was an important, if not determinant, factor in implementing an agrarian reform program. In the early 1960s, because of increasing pressure on the government from landless peasants and external pressure from the United States through the Alliance for Progress, the PLH government of Ramón Villeda Morales took significant steps toward implementing a land reform program. He established the National Agrarian Institute (Instituto Nacional Agrario--INA) in 1961 and the following year approved an agrarian reform law that especially was aimed at the uncultivated lands of the United States-owned fruit companies. The 1963 military coup and subsequent repressive rule of General López Arellano brought an abrupt halt to land redistribution. By the late 1960s, however, peasant organizations were again increasing pressure on the government, and under a director who was sympathetic to the peasant movement, the INA began to adjudicate land claims in favor of peasants.

The election of conservative Ramón Ernesto Cruz as president in 1971 once again shifted the government's agrarian policy to one favoring the large landholders, but with the 1972 coup, again led by General López Arellano, the government instituted a far-reaching agrarian reform program. The program was all the more significant because it was driven by López Arellano, who had crushed land reform efforts in the 1960s. This time around, however, the general allied himself with peasant organizations. He issued an emergency land reform decree in 1972 and in 1975 issued another agrarian reform measure that promised to distribute 600,000 hectares to 120,000 families over a period of approximately five years.

In 1975, however, a conservative countercoup by General Juan Melgar Castro ended these high expectations for land redistribution. After 1977 land redistribution continued, but at lower levels. According to a study by Charles Brockett, from 1962 through 1984, a little more than 293,000 hectares were distributed, benefiting about 52,000 families countrywide. Brockett observed, however, that most of the land distributed was public land rather than idle or underutilized private land. In the 1980s, land redistribution slowed while peasant land takeovers of underused land continued unabated. The government's reaction to the takeovers was mixed. At times, the military reversed them by force, and, on other occasions, the government did nothing to stop the occupations.

In 1992 the Callejas government enacted a new agricultural modernization law that some observers claim essentially ended prospects for additional land distribution. The law, approved by the National Congress in March 1992, limited expropriations and augmented guarantees for private ownership of land. The United States Department of State observed that the law improved the environment for increases in investment, production, and agricultural exports. The law was actively opposed by some peasant organizations, who waged a campaign of land occupations and claimed that those peasant organizations that supported the law were linked to PNH or were bought by the government.

In the early 1990s, the government increasingly intervened in the affairs of labor unions and peasant organizations through parallel unions. For example, in July 1992, the Callejas government gave legal recognition to two parallel unions in the telecommunications workers union and to a second union representing road, airport, and terminal maintenance employees. In October 1992, the government recognized a faction of Anach that favored the Callejas government's proposed agricultural modernization law even though another faction had won a union election.

Unions in Honduras have strongly opposed the growth of solidarity (solidarismo) associations, which emphasize labor-management harmony. These associations, which consist of representatives of both labor and management, provide a variety of services by utilizing a joint worker/employer capital fund. Solidarity associations began in the late 1940s in Costa Rica and have thrived there, accounting for almost 16 percent of the work force. In Honduras solidarity associations first appeared in 1985 and, although the government had not granted the associations legal status, by the early 1990s they accounted for about 10,000 workers in a variety of companies. Organized labor, including Honduran unions and international labor affiliations, strongly opposes solidarity associations on the grounds that they do not permit the right to strike and that they do not include appropriate grievance procedures. Unions contend that the associations are management- controlled mechanisms that undermine unionism. In 1991 a bitter strike at El Mochito mine was reportedly begun by unions who opposed management's attempt to impose a solidarity association there.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress