Bolivia: Wage disputes pose challenges

Federico Fuentes

Several weeks of conflict between the government of President Evo Morales and Bolivian trade unions has again thrown into sharp relief some of the serious challenges confront Bolivia’s process of change.

For two weeks in April, the Bolivian Workers Central (COB) called mobilisations across various cities to protest the government’s proposed 10% pay rise for teachers, health workers, police and soldiers, and 20% rise in the minimum wage.

The COB initiated an “indefinite general strike” on April 7, saying the proposed rise fell below the annual inflation rate. The government rejected the argument by pointing to National Statistic Institute figures showing inflation was 6.1% for 2010.

The impact of the strike was minimal, but the protests, made up predominately of teachers and health workers, as well as some factory and mine workers, were some of the biggest workers’ protests against the government since Morales was first elected in 2005.

Gas workers, workers in the state-owned mines and telecommunications company, transport workers and indigenous and peasant organisations affiliated to the COB did not take part.

The main driving force behind the protests was the impact of the government decision in December to remove fuel subsides. The measure led to a dramatic rise in fuel costs and contributed to rise in already high prices of basic food staples affected by the global food crisis.

The mass reaction against the measure, including among sectors loyal to the government, forced Morales to reverse the decision.

However, food prices remain artificially high, with shortages affecting peoples’ ability to access certain goods.

The response to this mistaken government policy took the form of workers demanding higher wage rises to cope with the increased prices that exceeded the general inflation rate.

A secondary factor was attempts by some sections of the COB to position themselves as the more “radical” wing of the union movement by criticising the “betrayal” of the current leadership in the lead up to the union federation’s congress in May.

Initially, a sentiment of intransigence, rather negotiation, seemed to predominate in relations between the COB and the government after the government’s March 2 wage rise announcement.

After calling for a general strike, the COB refused to negotiate with the government unless Morales was present in discussions.

Morales said he would only talk to the new COB leadership elected at its May congress.

Unions raised secondary demands such as measures to reactivate the economy to create jobs. But the focus of most sectors was winning par rises ranging from 15-20%.

Some, such as the Oruro Departmental Workers Central (COD), headed by long time Morales foe, Jaime Solares, called for a 70% rise.

The Morales government denounced such demands as “laughable”. It called on workers to consider the national economy and other sectors not covered by the wage rises.

Negotiations between the COB and the government finally began on April 9, lasting for three days. This included an 18 hour meeting in which Morales took part.

A wide-ranging provisional agreement was announced on April 11, pending approval by the COB’s affiliated unions.

The agreement included creating a joint COB-government commission to draft new mining, forestry, labour, banking, investment and electricity laws to replace old neoliberal laws still in place.

Another commission was proposed to discuss industrialisation projects. The government also pledged to continue its battle for food sovereignty and provide the COB with information on food production, distribution and consumption.

Another point involved advancing the proposed restructure of the National Health Fund (CNS) to deal with due of nepotism in the institution. CNS workers, who were most of majority the health workers on strike, have opposed the government’s right to intervene in the institution.

The miners’ federation, FSTMB, immediately announced its support for the agreement.

The Bolivian Information Agency (ABI) reported on April 11 that FSTMB executive secretary Guido Mitma, said his union would no longer “be focussing on the issue of the wage rise, we will focus on the issue of annulling [neoliberal decree 21060] and reactivating the productive apparatus”.

He added “we consider that … the government has shown amply willingness in this regards”.

Mitma said the FSTMB supported the government’s decision to renationalise mines privatised by pre-Morales governments —a demand raised by the FSTMB.

However, the COB, and the teachers unions in particular, rejected the agreement. It insisting a 15% pay rise was affordable if the government redirected some of its international currency reserves, which are at a historic high level.

The government responded that the reserves belonged to all Bolivians, not just the workers.

The COB again refused to negotiate with government ministers. It intensified protests, setting up roadblocks in various regions and clashing with police.

Council workers from the opposition-controlled La Paz municipal council also joined protests.

On April 12, indigenous and peasant organisations from the National Coalition for Change (Conalcam) said they were preparing to take to the streets against the “intransigence” of the COB and in support of the government.

Denouncing forces “that follow a Trotskyism that simply obeys the plans to destabilise a government that belongs to the social movements”, peasant union leader Roberto Coraite said that “this process of change has to be deepened … but not with blockades or mobilisations that simply lead to the destabilisation of a popular government”.

After further negotiations on April 17-18, an agreement was finally reached for an additional 1% pay rise for teachers and health workers.

A commission will be established to look at ways of funding a further possible 1% rise from the national budget, retroactive to January 2011.

On April 23, Morales pledged to use US$2 billion, or 20%, of its international reserves for projects for industrialisation and productive projects.

Despite the agreement, Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera denounced on April 19 what he said was attempts by some union leaders, particular from the teacher and health worker unions, to manipulate the genuine “social content” of the workers’ struggle to convert in into a movement to overthrow the government.

Garcia Lineras said an indefinite strike is “by definition” a political measure aimed at “bringing down” a government. At a press conference, he said: “Who proposed this measure? Those middle class public employees who have taken over the COB and its ideology.”

He said the recent conflict was the result of an “ebb” in the process initiated by the January 2000 uprising in Cochabamba against water privatisation and that lead to Morales’s election.

Addressing a mass mobilisation of pro-government peasants, coca growers, unionist and local government authorities in Cochabamba later that day, Garcia Linera said the government had won with the signing of the agreement.

But he called on those present to defend “our revolutionary process … and if it is necessary to march once or twice to La Paz, we will to ensure that the peasant, indigenous, worker and popular movements are respected”.

Coca grower union leader Marcelino Quiroga denounced the attitudes of the “Trotskyist” leaders of the teachers union at the gathering. Peasant leader Manuel Mamani said teachers who had participated in the protests should not be allowed to return to their jobs.

The coca growers union federation has announced that it coordinate efforts with the other main indigenous and peasant organisations to intervene into the upcoming COB congress.

The federation is still technically affiliated to the COB, it they stopped taking part after Morales, then president of the federation, was unilaterally expelled from the COB in 2003 by then COB secretary Solares.

The main indigenous and peasant groups represent the largest COB affiliates by far. However, statutes limit peasant representation in COB congress to 16% of delegates, behind workers (51%) and those designated “middle class” (25%).

The COB’s statutes also limit the number of spots peasants can fill on the national executive to five out of 39 positions. The executive secretary must be a mine worker.

Gualberto Bustamante, vice-president of the coca growers federation of the Chapare, said: “We are the majority … we want to redirection the political line [of the COB] and restructure the monopoly that exists in it.”

Teacher unions have called another protest, but not strike, for May 3 after the labour minister said teachers and health workers would have pay deducted for each day they were on strike.

On April 27, the COB threatened to rip up the agreement if the government proceed with this threat.

A new hurdle to the agreements has come from mine workers in the four privatised mines singled out for nationalisation by the government.

On April 26, representatives from 15 mine unions, as well as some FSTMB executives, said they would hold vigils on May 1 to stop attempts to return those mines to state control.

Cesar Lugo, an FSTMB executive member, said workers at the private mines said they opposed state takeover because they were not convinced the state company had the capacity to administer the mines.

Lugo was defeated by Mitma in the last union elections for the position of executive secretary.

The same day, the FSTMB reiterated it believed the mines “should pass into the hands of the Bolivian state … administered and operated by COMIBOL [the state mining company]”.

The mine workers union at Huanuni issued a statement denouncing the fact that the mining transnationals refuse to allow workers to audit and monitor their financial records, and send their profits overseas.

The transationals “are used to corrupt and control leaders” that long ago betrayed the traditional militancy of the miners’ union, the statement said.

Mining minister Jose Pimentel said the position taken by the workers opposed to nationalised was due to the greater benefits they received in recent times from the mining companies, resultant from the increasing in world mineral prices.

On April 27, Pimentel said the four mines would not be nationalised, as the government would only proceed with the workers’ consent.

However, the owners of the privatised mines would be forced into joint ventures that would give the state at least 51% control and greater supervisory powers over administrative and financial matters.

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