New Threats, New Hope

By Sandy Smith

SAN SALVADOR--The explosion tore through the headquarters of the National Unity of Salvadoran Workers (UNTS) in the early morning hours of April 30. The timing of the terrorists was no accident- -the bombing took place on the eve of the annual May Day march which brought an estimated 20,000 workers and students into the streets of San Salvador to protest this country's ongoing repression of labor.

"We believe that this inhuman act is a product of the desperation of (President Napoleon) Duarte's government which is trying to destroy all popular organizations," Salvadoran labor leader Humberto Centeno told reporters a few hours after the bombing. He speculated that the timing of the attack was based on the belief that hundreds of workers in town for the event would be sleeping in the building. In fact, only three workers were staying there that night and they escaped injury.

Following six months of stepped up attacks on the labor movement and this spring's municipal electoral victories by the right- wing National Republican Alliance (Arena) party, the bombing may foreshadow future problems for Salvadoran workers. Political disappearances and outright murders of 5,000 unionists occurred in 1981 and 1982.

Although the number of labor organizers murdered dropped off after 1982, low level repression along with routine surveillance and militant strike breaking tactics on the part of the government and security police have continued.

Actual salaries and working conditions have deteriorated in this period. Under Duarte, both inflation and unemployment have grown. Sixty percent of the workforce in the capital city is underemployed or out of work. And for the lucky ones who have jobs, the 50 percent inflation rate and frequent shortages of basic foodstuffs have diminished the purchasing power of workers, whose median income is only $200 per year. Medicine prices have tripled in many pharmacies since 1986. Bean prices have doubled since last fall. If President Duarte succumbs to International Monetary Fund (IMF) pressure to devalue the colon, the paycheck of the average worker will buy even less.

The minimum wage in El Salvador's San Bartolo Free Trade Zone remains the equivalent of $26 per week, a fact which the Reagan administration's Commerce Department touts when promoting investment in the country through the Caribbean Basin Initiative. Meanwhile, the steady influx of U.S. military and economic aid (over $1 billion in the last seven years) and the willingness of the Reagan administration to overlook human rights abuses has taken the pressure off Duarte to comply with his promises of social reforms.

The methods of repression against trade unions, as well as the intensity, have changed in the last year, according to an American labor specialist who has been studying the situation. Previous strategies of targeting union leaders have begun to change, she says. The victims of disappearances or assassinations include random rank and file members--the object being to terrorize anyone who associates with organized labor.

Since fall, 1987, four workers from ASTTEL, the telephone workers union, and three members of STISSS, the social security workers union, have been killed by unknown assailants.

"Most of them were rank and file members assassinated openly, often near their homes," reported the labor specialist, who asked not to be identified. "This type of terrorism communicates that anyone is at risk. After something like this happens in a barrio, other co-workers living nearby move away or drop out of the union. Members of STISSS are afraid to walk the streets these days," she said.

For the first time in recent years human rights monitors in El Salvador are comparing the situation with that of the 1980-81 period. Since December the number of political killings in all sectors has risen steadily. The situation is expected to worsen over the next year as the ARENA party tightens its hold over San Salvador's city government and prepares for the presidential elections this spring.

The March electoral defeat of Duarte's Christian Democratic Party (PDC) demonstrated that the voting populace is receptive to Arena's campaign promises of "a change for the better" from the corruption that has come to characterize the PDC. Arena took pains to project a more moderate, reformist public image in the mayoral campaign. But political observers who remember the rightwing party's past links to the death squads and the murder of Archbishop Romero view Arena leaders as "wolves in sheeps' clothing."

Ironically, one of Arena's chief promises is to "kick the Yankees out of El Salvador" and make the country more self- sufficient--a proposal which mirrors the demands of the left and appeals to the strong nationalist sentiment of Salvadorans. The catch is that Arena leaders, mainly representing moneyed business concerns, would prefer achieving this goal by turning back the clock to the days of feudalist labor practices and increased militarization, rather than through reforms.

Both Arena and Duarte's PDC make wide use of paid ads in the media and posters to denounce the National Unity of Salvadoran Workers (UNTS) as a tool of "foreign subversion," a synonym for insurgent forces of the National Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN). Plastered on light poles and walls this spring were notices that read "UNTS = FMLN; WHO CAN DENY IT?" showing two blurry photographs of a man identified as Carlos Atilio Guzman. In one he is supposedly participating in a UNTS demonstration, while the other shows him dressed as a guerrilla carrying a rifle.

This theme was also at the root of the March 10 incident in which Duarte made a public claim that a UNTS demonstration at the Ministry of Labor was part of an FMLN plot to take over the building. The incident began when a group of 52 workers entered the Ministry building requesting a meeting with Minister Lazaro Tadeo Bernal. The minister refused to meet with the leaders of the group and told his bodyguards to break a window through which he escaped. The building was immediately surrounded by troops of the Belloso Battalion, which specializes in counter- insurgency warfare, preventing the workers from leaving. Inside the building the workers immediately began calling the UNTS office and the media asking for help.

The minister and Duarte held a press conference that afternoon claiming that the FMLN had instigated the "takeover" of the Ministry and that workers had assaulted the minister. Eyewitnesses later testified that the labor leaders had not threatened to take the building and did not injure the minister. Only through emergency negotiations mediated by Assistant Archbishop Rosa Chavez did military authorities finally permit the workers to leave the Ministry.

While the negotiations were stalled that same afternoon about 70 UNTS members came to the site in buses in hopes that the authorities would permit the trapped workers to leave with them and avoid a military confrontation. Soldiers boarded some of the buses and, recognizing UNTS leader Humberto Centeno, forcibly removed him. That night television cameras showed Centeno lying in the street unconscious after being beaten by the soldiers and arrested.

Centeno, an executive board member of the UNTS and secretary general of ASTTEL, was taken to the headquarters of the Salvadoran Air Force where he reportedly underwent further beatings. While still in custody Centeno was transported to the Centro Diagnostico hospital where he was hospitalized for 14 days. Domestic and international pressure persuaded the authorities to allow reporters to interview Centeno in the hospital and to eventually release him without charges.

Another result of the March incident was the government issue of arrest orders for four labor leaders who participated in the protest at the Ministry. In the two months since, for their own protection, the four have been forced to live as virtual prisoners inside the headquarters of FENASTRAS, the National Federation of Salvadoran Workers, a UNTS-affiliated federation of urban unions.

In May, 37 U.S. trial lawyers published excerpts from an amicus brief on behalf of the four labor leaders as a paid ad in Salvadoran newspapers. In the brief the U.S. lawyers who had studied the case cited eyewitness testimony from international observers contradicting government claims that the four accused men had attacked the Labor Minister or destroyed government property. They described the arrest warrants as having no basis in Salvadoran law.

Juan Jose Huezo, secretary of international relations for FENASTRAS and secretary general of Salvadoran textile workers union STITAS, is one of two officials from his union named in the arrest warrants. "My situation is difficult," he said, "I can't visit my family in Santa Tecla. The only time I leave the building is for popular activities outside when I'm accompanied by friends."

It is not the first public attack against Huezo who only a few months ago was called an "agitator, guerilla and enemy of workers" in a paid newspaper ad published by the owner of the "Mike-Mike" textile plant. STITAS has been involved in a strike against "Mike-Mike" since Fall, 1987.

Pay in the textile factories where STITAS organizes ranges from $4-5 per day. Most of the textile factories in El Salvador are foreign owned and function as "maquilladoras," assigning workers to do piece work on foreign export goods for low pay. Through use of the Salvadoran free trade zone the owners can avoid paying both income and import-export taxes.

The historic repression against textile organizers has been intense. Eight STITAS directors were killed in 1980 and government strike-breaking tactics have reduced the number of organized plants from 12 in 1980 to no more than three today. Illegal firings of 11 union members at "Mike-Mike" last November precipitated an occupation of the factory by over 300 workers and a standoff between the employees and a military cordon which immediately encircled the building. Although the owners agreed in the second day of negotiations to a 15 percent pay raise and to rehire the fired workers, they later refused to respect the agreement. Instead, the owners convinced the government to declare the union illegal in mid-December and 30 more union members were fired.

Shortly afterwards, in January, STITAS member Juan Jose Mejia was shot.

"We have a military apparatus here that, instead of protecting the workers and the unions, attacks us," commented Huezo.

The STITAS struggle intensified in March at the CIRCO textile plant which markets clothes under the U.S. trademark "Levis." On March 28 CIRCO owners fired 70 union members from the plant, citing economic difficulties. Only 30 employees remain at the CIRCO plant as of mid-May and each day workers must pass through a military cordon around the building to get to work.

Many of the low-paying textile plants are located in the San Bartolo Free Trade Zone, just east of the capital city. Aside from the usual break in import and export taxes that multinationals gain in a free trade zone, American companies share the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) tax incentives of the Reagan administration.

When El Salvador was certified as eligible for one-way, duty free trade privileges under the act in 1984, the AFL-CIO lobbied Congress to impose human rights requirements, including workplace health and safety standards, collective bargaining rights and organizational rights for employees. These concerns fell by the wayside. A powerful lobby of U.S. businesses with interests in Central America, including Eastern Airlines, Coca- Cola, Alcoa, Control Data and Grace-Kennedy, Ltd. blocked the AFL-CIO initiative. Under current law, expropriation of U.S. property would serve as grounds for cutting a country out of CBI benefits, but neither human rights violations nor lack of trade union freedoms are grounds for disqualification.

Unfortunately, U.S. trade policy has always been closely tied to protection of "strategic interests" abroad. And the historic foreign policy goals of the United States in Central America have more often involved the disruption, rather than strengthening, of democratic unions--particularly when the organized workforce ends up at odds with the military government of a U.S. ally.

Through the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFELD), U.S. agents have meddled in Salvadoran labor organizing for more than two decades, with a mandate of blocking the growth of labor organizations with communist leanings. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, AIFELD, jointly funded by the AFL-CIO, Department of State, U.S. corporations and the CIA, has bankrolled those Salvadoran unions which could be manipulated into supporting the current U.S.backed regime. The federation of 38 trade unions which makes up the UNTS arose in part from a block of unions which broke away from the Popular Democratic Unity (UDP), an AIFELD-controlled labor coalition.

Last December, after the STISSS general elections, the 4,000 member social security workers union, a small group of dissident workers who had lost their jobs following the fall strike formed their own committee to dispute the election results. Although representatives of other unions who observed the elections pronounced them clean, the committee mounted a vocal protest with paid ads and submitted a legal challenge to the results to the Ministry of Labor. Many suspected AIFELD backed this "rump group."

Pedro Cruz, the STISSS general secretary, said that many STISSS workers became suspicious when the committee, supposedly made up of only four or five unemployed workers, suddenly rented a nice office with furniture and telephone in a central location. Then the committee fell apart of its own accord. One woman, named Miriam de Mejia, was expelled by the other members, who denounced her for accepting AIFELD funds and manipulating the other members.

This type of internal subversion, combined with continuous government repression of organizing efforts, takes an enormous human toll. Labor observers in El Salvador say most unions in this period are in a recovery phase after a year of broken strikes and increasingly frequent human rights violations.

But this period of setbacks in labor negotiations has also been a time of radicalization and increasingly vocal union participation in the political sector. Many labor organizers view Arena's recent successes as a signal that the days of the PDC government are numbered. Revelations that Duarte is seriously ill are further strengthening the resolve of the right. For Salvadoran labor organizers this political shift is already opening up new opportunities.

The charged atmosphere during the enormous May Day march was testament to this. Just as the university contingent of the march joined ranks with the larger phalanx of UNTS workers, an air force plane swooped down over the demonstrators to deliver a payload of government leaflets. For the rest of the day military helicopters circled and dived overhead while soldiers filmed the march. Rather than hide their faces the demonstrators shook their fists and shouted slogans at every pass of the roaring gunship. It was a sign of the new confidence of the Salvadoran labor movement, indicating, perhaps, that El Salvador is ready for change.

Sandy Smith is a freelance writer based in El Salvador.