The Role of Labor in Latin America’s ‘Left Turn’

After almost twenty years of living with the Washington Consensus of free-trade policies, a broad opposition to the political economy of neoliberal globalization has developed throughout Latin America.

March 11, 2008

As the Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers (of the ICFTU) meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia, last December noted, “The victories of Evo Morales [in Bolivia], Lula [in Brazil], Chávez [in Venezuela] and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, create an opportunity for the establishment of an integration process different from the neoliberal model… and an opportunity to confront the free-trade agreements that are being negotiated in the region.”

The political change in Latin America has been driven by massive protests involving general strikes, sometimes-violent uprisings, and a left-wing military coup. By 2006, these protest movements had brought to power new left-of-center governments in several countries. The presidents elected in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Uruguay in this period came to power by opposing, at least nominally, the free market policies pushed upon them by the United States and the world financial institutions—the IMF, World Bank, and WTO. While the visions, programs and actions of these governments vary significantly, taken together this development represents an important shift in the politics of Latin America vis-à-vis the United States and its free-trade agenda. More important, this block of nations and of peoples represents a search for an alternative to the destructive and dehumanizing regime of savage capitalism masked by the term “globalization.”

Globalization has brought drastic changes to Latin American economies and societies and particularly to industry-labor relations. Markets have been opened, even to foreign investors with up to 100% ownership, state-owned firms have been privatized, industries deregulated, social budgets and government subsidies cut, labor unions attacked, industry-wide pattern agreements dismantled, contractual working conditions have been made flexible, and subcontracting increased. At the same time, old machines have been scrapped and new technologies introduced together with new forms of organization of production, eliminating or disrupting preexisting informal workplace relations and union structures on the shop floor. The worker, if she did not lose her job, often lost her workmates and found her routine broken and her life altered.

All this has had profound consequences: noncompetitive firms closed, and in some places entire industries perished, new export processing zones (maquiladoras) were established, though still the number of industrial jobs declined, and unemployment rose. As male industrial workers were losing jobs, 33 million women entered the Latin American labor market between 1990 and 2004, coming to make up 40% of the economically active population in Latin America. Wage differentials grew between the better-educated skilled workers and the uneducated and unskilled. Millions of workers, men and women, found employment only in the informal sector, an illegal and underground economy without labor unions or any form of social insurance (health care and pensions). In much of Latin America the informal economy came to make up between 25 and 40% of all employment.

By 1997, 45% of all Latin Americans lived in poverty, and, in some countries, extreme poverty—characterized by malnutrition and the deterioration of one’s health—affected 20% of the population. Faced with such conditions, millions of workers began to migrate first to the cities of their own nation, then from one Latin American nation to another—in South America to Argentina or Venezuela and in Central America to Mexico—or, leaving Latin America, to the United States or Europe. By 2000, more than 35 million Latin Americans—two-thirds Mexican—had reached the United States where they made up 13% of the population. Ten percent of all Mexicans left their country—about 10 million people went to live in the United States between 1965 and 2005, the greatest emigration in the nation’s history.

The region’s labor movements have also been transformed. In much of Latin America since the 1930s or 1940s a corporatist political-labor system, that is, a system where political parties controlled the labor unions, had existed. Powerful nationalist-populist political parties—the Peronists (Partido Justicalista) in Argentina, Democratic Action (AD) in Venezuela, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico—had dominated the official labor federations: respectively, the General Confederation of Workers (CGT), the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), and the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). During those years, loyal union bureaucracies had privileged positions, and unionized workers enjoyed job security and relatively higher wages as well as access to subsidized food and housing. Workers in heavy industry or public employment often had lifetime job security even if in their bureaucratic and corrupt unions they did not enjoy democratic rights. Independent, democratic, leftist, and militant unions and workers, however, were punished for their impudence by being marginalized in this system.

Yet, within ten years of the introduction of neoliberalism, the power of the old Latin American labor federations had been devastated. During the period from 1985 to 2000, in most countries of Latin America, the old nationalist-populist parties turned to the right, and as they did so they lost control of the labor movement. The official confederations then broke up into rival federations, with politics left, right, and center. The working people at the bottom of these societies struggled against the neoliberal policies adopted by virtually all parties and governments. But they did not always do so through the old labor unions; in fact, often they created or adhered to other vehicles of struggle. The cases of Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, and Bolivia show some of the different ways that unions and the new left governments interact.


The pioneers of the new left political movement in Latin America have been the Brazilians. Lula and the Workers’ Party (PT) came to power in Brazil out of a decades-long struggle against military dictatorship. Lula himself was a metal worker, the leader of the Metal Workers Union and of the new Brazilian labor federation, the United Confederation of Workers (CUT), founded in 1983. To many, Lula appeared as a kind of tropical Eugene V. Debs, a workingman with a worker’s vision of democracy and social justice.

During his first term, his government gave more than 500 million dollars to the poorest Brazilians through his family basket plan (Bolsa Familia). The PT government in Porto Alegre created a “participatory budget,” a process by which community representatives worked with the city council to develop the budget. In other areas, the PT has promoted People’s Assemblies as a form of participatory democracy, a people’s government. At the same time, however, Lula has disappointed another arm of the labor movement, the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST), which wanted him to support a more radical agrarian reform. While Lula’s government was supposed to benefit workers and the poor, ironically, it was the Brazilian banks which did best during his first government and became his biggest supporters during his second campaign.

Yet, in the end, confident that Lula was making necessary concessions to international capital, and feeling that “never in the history of Brazil has so much been done for the poor,” the CUT, the MST, and the PT all supported Lula’s second campaign, giving him a solid victory.


In the 2003 election, Argentina’s unions broke with their history and instead of voting as a block for the Peronists as they usually did, they divided their votes among the presidential candidates of the different Peronist factions. Néstor Kirchner, a little-known provincial governor, won the election without the backing of the unions. Nevertheless, once in power, he began to recreate the former corporatist relationship between the Peronist party and the CGT. In particular, he gave strong support to Hugo Moyano, who in July 2005 became the leader of the federation.

Kirchner and Moyano worked together from above to reconstruct the corporatist structure, a process aided by the bureaucratic and corrupt practices of many unions. Nevertheless, union stewards’ councils and activists organized and carried out strikes and won important victories. The telephone workers’ union, FOETRA Buenos Aires, forced Telecom and Telefónica to incorporate hundreds of temporary and part-time workers into the regular workforce. Workers in the Buenos Aires Metrovías subway system won a shorter workday, higher wages, and the incorporation into the union of maintenance workers. Others—namely, railroad workers, teachers, commercial workers and government employees—created new forms of discussion and coordination.

A report from the Labor Education Workshop (TEL) in Buenos Aires notes, “Most of these union struggles have been led by the workers themselves organized in stewards councils with little participation from the official union structure.” In Argentina, an independent labor movement appears to be in the process of rebuilding from the ground up. Whether it will become strong enough to challenge the neo-corporatist structures and become a force independent of the government remains to be seen.


In Venezuela, the change in society came from radicals in the military. In 1989, populist president Carlos Andrés Perez of AD announced the “Great Turnaround,” a shock liberalization program. The AD’s own CTV federation called the country’s first general strike and won some concessions. Nevertheless, economic nationalism had been superseded by neoliberalism and things began to unravel. The elite’s economic program exacerbated conditions and eventually led to food riots and popular protests in every city in the country in the country in 1989. A labor-based radical movement, Causa R, and a socialist party, the Movement to Socialism (MAS), both put forward socialist programs in this period. However, it was a military coup led by Col. Hugo Chávez in 1992 that, though it failed, captured the imagination of the country’s working classes and poor people. Chávez became a hero. Freed from prison by President Caldera in 1994, Chávez organized the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MBR), and in December 1998 was elected president, and subsequently reelected in 2000 and 2006.

Chávez became the leader and inspirer of a working-class socialist movement in Venezuela. Yet, Venezuela’s labor unions, most of which remain affiliated with the opposition CTV, have not been central to his populist government. “The Chávez government has given greater freedom for union organization and it has conceded some political, social and economic gains,” says independent labor leader, Pérez Burgos of the breakaway National Workers’ Union (UNT). “Nevertheless, the base of the government is made up of the poorest groups and it has made the greatest concessions to them.”

For Pérez Burgos and many union activists in Venezuela, the key issue is workers’ control, by which they mean workers actually running firms and factories. Chávez has rejected a joint government-union management of the state oil company, which remains under state control. In the aluminum industry, Chávez has permitted a German Social Democracy-style company-union co-management. Some 1,200 business have been abandoned by their owners in recent years, but only a small fraction have been occupied by workers, only 20 have been nationalized, and only a handful are under workers’ administration or co-administration. The situation remains dynamic, however, as workers pressure the government to take control of the plants.


President Evo Morales of Bolivia came to power on the shoulders of movements of indigenous people, coca farmers, and new radical unions, though they are not labor unions in the traditional sense. The historic Bolivian labor unions, particularly the Bolivian Mine Workers (FSTMB) and the Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB) played an important role in the revolution of 1952, and thereafter in every struggle for democracy and social justice in Bolivia. Beginning in the 1980s, however, the tin industry began to decline and together with it the power of the mineworkers. In 1985, president Víctor Paz Estenssoro introduced the New Economic Policy, a shock therapy application of liberalization. A series of strikes against privatizations between 1989 and 1993 were violently suppressed, weakening the power of the old union movement.

As the old union movement based in the mining district of Oruro and the capital city of La Paz declined, other areas became more important. El Alto, originally a shantytown suburb of La Paz, grew to a population of 800,000, about 80% of them indigenous Aymara. In El Alto, the Regional Workers Central (COR-El Alto), and the Federation of Neighborhood Councils of El Alto (FEJUVE), gave leadership to a broad popular and radical movement of working people and communities. These are not, however, traditional workers; 70% of working people in El Alto are self-employed. At the same time, the coca producing areas in the Chapare region grew in importance and the coca farmers created a federated union system, which elected Evo Morales to be its president.

Since his election to Bolivia’s presidency, Morales has carried out a kind of quasi-nationalization of Bolivia’s gas and oil industry on May 1, 2006, and pushed an agrarian reform program through parliament in November 2006 that will lead to the distribution of 77,000 square miles of land to impoverished peasants. While union support played some role in his election, Morales does not give expression to the union movement, nor do the unions give him uncritical support. A populist leader with a vague program of indigenous socialism, he is sometimes supported and sometimes challenged by the old and new unions that helped to bring him to power. Morales’s government has, for example, sometimes supported small workers’ cooperatives that are allied with multinational investors against the Bolivian Miners’ Union, which demands that all minerals be nationalized under the government mining company.

At the moment, Latin America represents a test of the ability of workers, through traditional labor movements, indigenous organizations, and organizations of the urban poor to build a mass social movement and a political party that will carry out a program that speaks to their interests. So far, the movements have succeeded in driving out conservative presidents and governments and bringing others to power.

Still, the various governments continue to operate within the neoliberal rules that govern the global economy. Some, like Evo Morales in Bolivia and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela struggle to gain time and political space, others like Kirchner and Lula appear to be following the path of least resistance. Workers in Latin America, especially in Bolivia and Venezuela, feel optimistic about their chances of bringing about meaningful social change, which to many of them means putting working people and the oppressed in power. Since the 1950s, attempts by Latin Americans to democratically change their governments have inevitably led to U.S. intervention. Their ability to build a better future, then, will ultimately depend not only upon themselves, but also upon solidarity from abroad, most important, from workers and unions in the United States.

Dan La Botz teaches history and Latin American studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. This is an abbreviated and adapted version of the article, "Latin America Leans Left: Labor and the Politics of Anti-Imperialism," published in the May 2007 issue of New Labor Forum. For the full article with complete citations and notes please consult the New Labor Forum Web site.

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