The Workers Movement in Guatemala

September 25, 2007

The history of the workers' movement in Guatemala includes one of the most auda- cious chapters in the annals of class struggle in Latin America: the democratic revolution of 1944-54. And the counterrevolution that followed ranks among the most ferocious known to the continent. Despite intensely repressive conditions, Guatemalan workers have been able to over- come this most difficult period and have in- Guatemala, like most Central American countries, has historically relied on one single export to sustain its economy. With coffee as king, however, the economy was extremely vulnerable to price changes on the world market. In the 1930s, a drop in coffee prices to less than half their 1929 level, and a decline in the volume of coffee exports, set the stage for a long period of economic crisis and political change. With the 1944-54 revolution the middle bourgeoisie--leading a broad-based class alliance--took power from the hands of the dominant coffee producing and exporting groups. A new economic and political project was formulated emphasizing industrialization and social reform. Until the 1940s, urban industrial develop- ment in Guatemala had been virtually nil, with the exception of a few food processing, itiated, since the mid-70s, a newer and stronger phase of struggle. The workers' movement has made significant advances in both consciousness and organization, re- establishing the bases for independent mobilization. Under the leadership of this movement, the working masses are beginning to formulate their own solutions to the economic crisis that now engulfs the country, and the region as a whole. beer and textile plants. Capitalist relations were most developed in the transportation in- dustry, with railroad workers numbering around 5,500 in 1945, and in the countryside, where 90% of the labor force was employed. The rural working class consisted mainly of coffee workers and the 15,000 workers employed in United Fruit's banana enclave. By the end of the revolutionary period, in 1953, and despite incentives to industry, ur- ban production was still the province of ar- tisans and small industries, 77% of which employed fewer than 20 workers. The in- dustries with highest employment were tex- tiles, shoes, garments and food products. In the 1960s, U.S. capital and the local bourgeoisies of Central America promoted a process of economic integration that tied the region to the more dynamic sectors of the world economy. Between 1961 and 1966, the CIDAMO is the Center for Information, Documentation and Analysis of the Latin American Workers' Movement. This article is an abbreviated version of one that appeared in the November 1979 issue of Car- ta Informativa, a monthly publication by CIDAMO. The full version in Spanish can be obtained from CIDAMO, Apdo. Postal 21-132, Mexico 21, D.F. 28 NACLA Reportregion's gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 6.3% a year, exceeding the growth rates of the 1950s. Manufacturing production grew even faster, at 9.2% A general rise in world prices for traditional exports, and the addi- tion of sugar cane and livestock exports to the list, contributed to this rise in the GDP. In the case of manufacturing, exports destined for the regional market were of fun-iamental im- portance. Foreign investment, especially North American, played an important role. From 1959 to 1969, U.S. investment rose 128%, and in 1969 represented 81.3% of total foreign investment in Central America. The relatively more developed economies-- Guatemala and El Salvador- received 45% of that total between 1963 and 1969. One consequence of this penetration was a high degree of monopolization in the region. In Guatemala, foreign capital had tradi- tionally controlled the production of agricultural goods for export. But the early 1960s saw a marked shift into manufacturing. According to 1977 data, manufacturing ac- counted for 35.6% of total foreign invest- ment, followed by agriculture, with 21%, and commerce, with 16.9%/. The rest was distributed in smaller proportions, among services, mining and construction. Foreign in- vestment in manufacturing naturally flowed into the most profitable branches: textiles, food, tobacco, chemicals, automobiles, oil and iron. On this basis, Guatemala, whose level of in- dustrialization was already the highest in the region at the end of the 1950s, consolidated its manufacturing sector. But industrializa- tion was deeply affected by the vicissitudes of Central American economic integration, beginning in the mid-60s and aggravated in 1969 by the crisis of the Common Market. In that year, the region's GDP grew by only 5.2%, and by 1975, affected by the world30 NACLA Report capitalist crisis as well, the growth rate of GDP was down to 2%. The effects of this situation fell most heavi- ly on the Guatemalan working class. Rising rates of unemployment and inflation were compounded by wage-squeeze policies ap- plied by successive governments. In 1973, the consumer price index went up 14%, rising steadily thereafter, by 10.7% in 1976 and 12.6% in 1977 (Note: These are IMF figures. According to the Economic Research In- stitute at the University of San Carlos, the cost of living rose by more than 50% in 1973). While the labor force expanded by 4-5% a year, the number of newly created jobs in- creased by only 1.6%. The economic crisis is not just conjunc- tural; rather, it has underlined the need for fundamental changes in the pattern of capitalist reproduction. Alternatives being considered include the development of agro- industries producing for the world market, tourism, exploitation of nickel and oil resources, and the creation of free zones. But the implementation of any bourgeois strategy must take into account the presence of a mass movement that has grown tremendously in size and stature since 1976. More and more, it is led by a proletariat created by the in- dustrialization process itself. A MULTI-CLASS ALLIANCE Guatemala's first trade union organizations were formed in the 1920s, primarily by craft workers. From the start, workers had to con- front violent repression at the hands of military governments, representing the bourgeois fractions linked to agro-exports. The struggles of dockworkers, railroad workers, day laborers on the coffee planta- tions and seamstresses continued despite the dangers, and gained momentum during the crisis of the 1930s. The economic crisis- a crisis of the export economy and the political regime it pro- duced-created favorable conditions for the rising middle industrial and commercial bourgeoisie, in its efforts to check the power of the agro-export bourgeoisie and the large landowning class. It was supported in this by large sectors of the urban petty bourgeoisie, as well as peasants and the still small pro- letariat. The immediate target of this multi- class alliance was the Ubico dictatorship (1931-1944), the direct representative of the bourgeois-oligarchical regime in crisis. The October Revolution, as this process is known, triumphed in 1944 and lasted a decade. Under the successive governments of Arevalo and Arbenz, it undertook a series of tasks which tended to strengthen the middle bourgeoisie and promote industrialization. In addition, an agrarian reform was carried out under Arbenz to extend the internal market, raise the level of public consumption and, at the same time, respond to the peasants' de- mand for land. Despite the small size and dispersion of the working class, the trade union movement became a main pillar of support for the Arbenz government. In 1946, the Second Congress of the Guatemalan Workers' Federation (CTG) came out in support of in- dustrial development and protection of trade, in addition to supporting the immediate economic demands of workers. Trade union policy was based on an alliance between workers and the incipient industrial bourgeoisie, a conception that flowed from the Popular Front theses of the Third Inter- national and from expectations that a na- tionalist bourgeoisie could lead industrializa- tion. In 1947, there were 65 trade unions in Guatemala, of which only 11 were legally recognized. The Labor Code enacted in that year recognized the right to strike and established obligatory collective bargaining for industrial workers. Nonetheless, it ratified the prohibition on workers' organizations in the countryside, on estates with fewer than 500 laborers. Faced with repression by the Arevalo government, agricultural workers in- creased their mobilizations and succeeded in abolishing this prohibition in 1948. The Na- tional Federation of Agricultural Workers (CNGG) was formed in 1950, outside the CTG. A trend toward unification of the trade union movement emerged during this period. The Trade Union Federation of Guatemala (FSG) became the strongest federation in the country, and attracted unions in the most powerful foreign and national firms. Another step was taken in 1946, with the formation of the National Committee for Trade Union 30 NACLA ReportJanlFeb 1980 31 Unity (CNUS) and another in 1951, when 400 organizations joined the General Confedera- tion of Guatemalan Workers (CGTG). The CGTG, with more than 100,000 members in 1953, and the CNGG, with more than 200,000 members, were a powerful force. Together they accounted for more than 75 % of the votes in 1950, and both joined the National Democratic Front' in support of the Arbenz government against internal and ex- ternal reactionary pressures. The formation of the CGTG was without a doubt an important step for the workers' movement. Its founding congress resolved to struggle for agrarian reform and in- dustrialization, for the defense of workers' in- terests in the countryside, for workers' unity at the national and international levels, and for the defense of democracy and the national economy. However, an incorrect policy of alliances, formulated by the movement's leadership, impeded the development of an independent program for the working class, restricting its field of action to the struggle for economic demands and support for the Arbenz government. With the invasion and coup d'etat of 1954, the consequences of this policy became dramatically clear. Workers found themselves isolated in the resistance, while the arms that Arbenz promised never arrived. Trade union support was not enough to protect the October Revolution, which had promised to respect Guatemalan capitalism and undertaken to modernize it. Sectors of the landowning bourgeoisie, threatened by agrarian reform, hardened their opposition to the Arbenz regime. The United Fruit Com- pany, the main representative of U.S. in- terests, also took the offensive, while new sec- tors of the Guatemalan bourgeoisie stood by in silent complicity. DIVIDE AND RULE The reactionary offensive, which turned power over to Colonel Castillo Armas in 1954, was directed against the working masses and their organizations. In addition to bloody repression of the centers of armed resistance, the military government ordered the dissolu- tion of the central trade union organizations and the most combative unions, as well as the main political parties. The policy applied by the state was intend- ed to subdue the workers' movement through large-scale repression and division; it was complemented by an effort to eliminate left influence in the unions, and to create a domesticated labor movement under the hegemony of the international "Western" con- federations. At the express invitation of Castillo Armas, three high officials of the AFL-CIO and the Cuban Federation of Labor (under Batista) arrived in Guatemala in 1955, to "reorganize" the country's trade union movement. That same year, the Trade Union Council of Guatemala was set up, under the auspices of the U.S.-dominated ORIT (Inter-American Regional Workers' Organization). Christian Democratic currents were active as well in this period, particularly in setting up the Autonomous Trade Union Federation of Guatemala (FASGUA) in 1956, with a Catholic orientation. In 1962, the first signs of recovery of the mass movement marked the beginning of a new phase. In April, there was an outbreak of broad-based popular activity, known as the Jornadas Civicas. Mass mobilizations pro- testing the killing of four students took on ma- jor proportions, and confrontations between marchers and police produced an undeter- mined number of arrests, wounded and dead. The railroad union in turn launched a strike against government repression, and the government proclaimed a state of siege. In May 1966, a new constitution went into effect that included some labor reforms. Civil servants were granted the right to unionize and the possibility of collective bargaining, although strikes and the right of trade unions to participate in political struggle were still prohibited. While bourgeois currents- and Christian Democracy in particular- continued to ex- pand their influence in the labor movement, the seeds of independent unionism were already beginning to grow in the 1960s. In 1963, railroad, aviation and sugar workers, among others, formed the Guatemalan Workers Confederation (CONTRAGUA). The Trade Union Confederation of Guatemala (CONSIGUA) was founded in the following year, and included the union representing workers at United Fruit Com- pany firms (STEUFCO). Also in 1964, the Jan/Feb 1980 3132 NACLA Report Guatemalan Workers Federation (FSG) reap- peared after an eight-year hiatus. While small in size, the Federation included important unions such as the Light and Power Company workers and the Telecommunications Workers Union. Despite this proliferation of central trade union organizations, the rate of unionization in Guatemala remained below that reached during the Arbenz government. In 1964, only 2% of the economically active population in urban areas, and 0.2% in rural areas, belong- ed to unions. STRENGTHENING INDEPENDENT TRADE UNIONISM In the period 1968-75, the number and size of workers' mobilizations increased significantly. The growing coordination and unification of popular struggles began to weaken the pro-government sector of trade unionism, as well as the Christian Democratic current. This coincided with a slowdown in economic growth, linked to the crisis of the Common Market at the end of the 60s, and to the outbreak of worldwide economic crisis. The intensity of repression in this period, while it failed to contain the upsurge of popular struggles, did slow down the advance of the workers' movement. In 1971, the government of Carlos Arana Osorio imposed another state of siege. Trade union activity was renewed the following year, however, with a 67-day strike in the Atlantic Industrial Company that ended in the dissolu- tion of the union and the "disappearance" of its secretary general. A railroad workers' strike was declared illegal in 1974, and repres- sion broke the movement's leadership. But there were victories as well; electricians and cigar workers mobilized to demand full-time work and respect of work contracts in 1974, and won in both cases. During this period, the government made yet another attempt to control workers' strug- gles. In 1970, the Federated Workers' Central (CTF) was created through the merger of CONTRAGUA and CONSIGUA, with a leadership criticized for its pro-government stance. After 1973, however, the CTF was weakened by defections to other federations and internal splits. In addition, new unions and federations emerged, organizing bank employees, university workers, and municipal workers. Thus, by the mid-70s, the Guatemalan trade union movement had undergone impor- tant changes, not only in terms of quan- titative growth, but mainly in the appearance of new sectors of social struggle. The tradi- tional union leadership was finding it more and more difficult to contain the thrust of workers' and popular struggles. Confronta- tion with the state's repressive bodies and the bosses, as well as the economic crisis, have ac- celerated the development of a trade unionism independent of bourgeois leader- ship. At the same time, the revolutionary left has resurfaced. Going beyond the guerrilla experience, the left has extended its mass work, supporting the growth of higher forms of struggle against the dictatorship. These changes and conditions have radicalized the Guatemalan mass movement. The period of workers' mobilizations which began in 1976 thus constitutes a new phase: The proletarian and popular masses have in- creasingly won their autonomy from the dominant classes, and a prerevolutionary crisis is approaching which coincides with similar situations in the region, particularly in Nicaragua and El Salvador. WORKERS ON THE OFFENSIVE On March 24, 1976, 152 workers from Coca-Cola were unjustly fired, in an attempt to destroy that union's militancy. Theescala- tion of repression and retaliation against workers led a number of organizations to con- vene a National Assembly of Trade Union Organizations on March 31, where they unanimously decided to create a unified body to confront repression: the National Commit- tee of Trade Union Unity (CNUS). Six days later, CNUS announced its intention to begin work stoppages all over the country to halt the repressive escalation against unions.Coca- Cola was ultimately obliged by the government to reinstate the fired workers, and recognize the juridical personality of the union, but the of- fensive against labor continued. Since its inception, CNUS has defined the scope of its activities to include the whole working population, and to extend beyond purely economic demands. Toward this end, the Committee of Agricultural Workers' Uni- 32 NACLA ReportlanlFeb 1980 33 ty (CUC) was formed, and later, the Democratic Front Against Repression. The unification process begun by the CNUS soon collided with Christian Democratic interests embedded in the labor movement and engaged in divisionist ac- tivities. In 1978, this collision led to a break between the CNT and CLAT, the Latin American Workers' Confederation, dom- inated by Christian Democratic forces. It con- firmed the growing trend toward in- dependence in the labor movement, and the rejection of bourgeois options that try to con- tain the popular movement. CONCLUSION The 1954 counterrevolution opened a new period of class struggle in Guatemala. Count- erinsurgency dealt harsh blows to the workers, peasants and popular masses. At the same time, it created the domestic context for dependent capitalist development, in re- sponse to new tendencies in the post-war world economy. This industrialization in turn had its counterpart in the growth of an in- dustrial proletariat, and the reconstitution of a workers' movement. The current crisis of Guatemalan cap- italism has meant worsening living conditions and superexploitation for the Guatemalan masses. It has created the environment for a new mass uprising, in progress since 1976. A stronger, independent and united struggle has allowed the working class to gradually distinguish itself, organically, politically and ideologically, from attempts on the part of the bourgeoisie to confuse and deflect the revolutionary struggle. Expressed in a grow- ing challenge- including armed struggle- to bourgeois domination, this situation has reduced the maneuvering space of the domi- nant classes, and has allowed conflicts to arise within those classes. A solution to the crisis which favors the interests of those fractions linked to big national and foreign capital thus becomes increasingly remote. The generalized rise of mass struggle in Central America was best expressed in the vic- tory of the Nicaraguan people. This is the new context not only for the worsening eco- nomic crisis in Guatemala - a crisis of the very pattern of capitalist development put into ef- fect after 1954--but also for the inability of the dominant groups to implement an altern- ative proposal. The moment is thus ripe for the advance of the popular struggles in Guatemala, announcing the possibility that a pre-revolutionary crisis is near. THE WORKERS MOVEMENT IN GUATEMALA 1. Other participants in the Front included the Revolutionary Action Party, the Party of the Guatemalan Revolution, the National Renewal Party, and the Guate- malan Workers Party (Communist, legalized in 1951). 2. The first CNUS members included the United Sugar Workers Federation (FETULIA), the Central Workers Federation (FESETRAG), the Trade Union Federation of Bank Employees (FESEB), the Autono- mous Trade Union Federation of Guatemala (FASGUA), the National Workers' Central (CNT), the Paper Workers Union, the Central Trade Union of Municipal Workers, and the Committee of Solidarity with the Coca- Cola Workers.

Tags: Guatemala, economy, trade union, industrialization, popular struggle

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