Tough Times: Labor in the Americas

September 25, 2007

These are not good times for working people. As real incomes decline throughout the Americas and decent jobs become harder to find—even through the region’s much-heralded periods of prosperity—a demoralization has set in. There has been a palpable diminution of working-class solidarity, and a breakdown of belief in the efficacy of any sort of collective struggle. The scarcity of adequate employment has produced what Carlos Vilas, in this NACLA Report on Labor, calls “a war of all against all for a job.” Further, says Vilas, citing worried World Bank functionaries, employment itself has lost its meaning as the gateway to economic well-being and advancement. The region’s once-proud labor movements have fallen on hard times.

This weakening of labor is both cause and consequence of the region’s ongoing economic transformation. The enormous setbacks suffered by labor over the past two decades have opened the door to further assaults on wages and benefits, and to the drastic scaling back of protective legislation, all in the name of economic growth and national competitiveness. A weakened labor movement formed the framework within which neoliberal economic policies took shape, and was at the same time a planned outcome of those policies. A strong labor movement might have fought more successfully against the low-wage model of development and the disappearance of public benefits. Instead, the labor movement has become increasingly unable to protect those most vulnerable to the onslaughts of both global and national capital.

The situation is grim. Ninety percent of all new jobs in Latin American countries are “informal”—off the books and without benefits. Since one wage will no longer support a family, additional family members are forced to look for work, and there are now an estimated 17.5 million working children between the ages of 5 and 14 in Latin America and the Caribbean. Numerous families are kept barely above the poverty line, reports Duncan Green, by the small incomes earned by their children. And, in the face of those inadequate wages, the concept of the “legal working day”—one of the most important achievements of Latin American labor movements—has nearly disappeared. An increasing number of people have to work 50 or more hours per week just to make ends meet.

Since labor rights, entitlements and protections are typically fought for and won through state legislation, the assault on state sovereignty by the transnational institutions of capital has in reality been an assault on the working class and the poor. Social protection is on the defensive. It has been replaced, as Vilas reports, by a principle of abstract equality which removes all supports from those who have been put at a disadvantage by the daily workings of the “free market.”

On the other hand, even as rank-and-file solidarity is sorely tested by the failure of labor markets to provide decent jobs, a new cross-border solidarity is slowly developing out of the realization that global capital cannot be confronted in only one country at a time. In a phenomenon which seems to contradict the breakdown of in-country working-class cooperation, there has been an upswing in cross-border contacts, cooperation and solidarity among trade unionists from North America, Central America and the Caribbean. This solidarity flows both ways. This Report describes both the strategic assistance provided to Central American organizing drives by U.S. unions, as well as the political support offered to U.S. unions by their Mexican counterparts.

Cross-border cooperation, perhaps the most hopeful phenomenon to emerge from this new era, is not always easy to bring about. The actual ownership of a particular productive enterprise, for example, is sometimes hard to track down, and companies have become adept at pitting workers of different nationalities against one another. Nonetheless, there is a new attitude and understanding within the region’s labor movements that a global system of production requires the global defense of labor.


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.