Bolivia: The COB vs. the GOB

Emily Achtenberg 5/20/2011

The conspicuous absence of the COB, Bolivia’s national trade union federation, from the government’s official International Workers’ Day celebration on May 1 speaks volumes about the growing fissures in the popular coalition that brought President Evo Morales to power.

For 12 days in April, the COB led widespread mobilizations to protest the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) government’s proposed 10% wage increase for teachers, health workers, police, and members of the armed forces. The COB demanded at least 15% and called for an “indefinite general strike.”  Despite the settlement reached on April 18, which included an additional 1-2% increase for teachers and health workers, the conflict has continued to simmer.

Of the 50 sectors affiliated with the COB, only 4—teachers, health workers, some miners, and La Paz municipal employees--joined the strikes and mobilizations. Workers in the state hydrocarbons, mining, and telecommunications sectors did not participate, nor did transportation workers, or indigenous and peasant organizations which are the largest COB affiliates.

But the protests shut down schools and disrupted public services across the country. Violent confrontations occurred in La Paz/ El Alto and in rural areas like Apacheta, Oruro, where police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at teachers manning road blockades. The mobilizations, led by sectors formerly allied with the MAS, were among the most protracted of Morales’ presidency.

What was behind the conflict? According to the government, the proposed 10% increase—along with a 20% increase in the minimum wage--was more than enough to cover inflation, logging in at 7.18% in 2010.  (Since Morales took office in 2006, the minimum wage has nearly doubled.)

The COB countered that cost of food, fuel, and other basic goods has sky-rocketed in recent months, even after massive protests forced the government to revoke the drastic  gasoline price hike decreed in December (the Gasolinazo). With more than $10 billion in international reserves, they argued, the government can afford a reasonable wage increase. Said vice-president Alvaro García Linera, “We’re not going to mortgage Bolivia’s wealth just to pay salaries.”

Since the Gasolinazo, the government has suffered a crisis of legitimacy. Polls show Morales’ approval rate dropping from 64% in the 2009 elections to just 30% in the four largest cities. As economist Roberto Laserna observes, the government’s new post-Gasolinazo policy of “gobernar obedeciendo” (to govern by obeying the people) has itself stimulated conflict, as discontented sectors feel empowered to press their particular demands.

Within the COB, internal political posturing ahead of the upcoming national congress may be another factor at work. Pedro Montes, the COB’s executive secretary, has become considerably more confrontational towards the government since he was physically attacked during the Gasolinazo by angry protestors suspicious of his then-close relationship with Morales.

Still, the government retains strong support among social sectors, especially in the countryside, who are unsympathetic to the strikers’ demands. At the height of the mobilizations, indigenous and peasant organization leaders threatened to physically confront the protesters. Peasants in North Potosí occupied the district school headquarters to demand the return, or dismissal, of striking teachers. For noted anthropologist Xavier Albó, these incidents evoked painful memories of the 1960s, when the military dictatorship mobilized peasant militias to crush insurgent miners.

The federation of coca growers’ unions, still affiliated with the COB but inactive in recent years, has vowed to re-engage in COB organizational politics. “We are the majority,” says Gustavo Bustamante, a cocalero leader. “We want to redirect the political line [of the COB] and restructure the monopoly that exists in it.”

This may be easier said than done. While indigenous and peasant groups are the largest COB affiliates, existing regulations limit their representation to 16% of the delegates. Workers control 51% of the delegates and “middle class” sectors 25%. Peasants can occupy only 5 of 39 national executive positions.

The COB’s executive secretary must be a mine worker. At the official International Workers' Day celebration held in Huanuni, where state mineworkers have a long revolutionary history and strongly support the government, vice-president Linera suggested that it was time for Huanuni to assume leadership of the COB.

While the government clearly doesn’t control its popular sector allies, it has managed the conflict badly. Provocative comments by public officials have intensified hostilities. Just days after the settlement, Linera denounced the mobilizations as a counter-revolutionary effort by “middle class” workers to appropriate state resources and destabilize the government, in alliance with ultra-right forces.

The COB is now calling for a referendum to oust Linera, while mobilizing for new protests against the discounts being applied to striking teachers’ and health workers’ wages. The government says the savings, estimated at $3 million, will be used for school supplies and children’s medicine.

The continuing conflict underscores the difficult challenge the MAS government faces in balancing the immediate expectations of its diverse constituencies with the need for long-term economic stability. These days in Bolivia, it seems that settling a strike is just the beginning.




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