ACAJUTLA, El Salvador — Long before the current debate over the Central America Free Trade Agreement, workers throughout the region were under attack from economic reforms that have broken unions, privatized workplaces and lowered wages. One reason unions throughout Central America oppose the agreement so strongly is that CAFTA cements that reform policy into place. The treaty would require dismantling the public sector to encourage private, especially foreign, investment, regardless of cost.
Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the model for CAFTA, Mexican unions lost tens of thousands of members in huge privatization scandals during the 1990s. Labor contracts were ripped to shreds, wages plummeted, and some unions even disappeared. Central American trade unionists view this experience as a fearful warning, pointing to what may lie in store for them. But in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica, unions also have had their own bitter experiences with privatization. These give them an even stronger reason to oppose the new free trade regime.
Few of the privatization assaults in Central America have been as sustained and sharp as those against the longshore workers of El Salvador.
Echoes of NAFTA
Their experience echoes that of the dockworkers in Veracruz, Mexico, who in 1991 became the Americas’ first victims of privatization at gunpoint. In El Salvador’s main port of Acajutla, as in Veracruz, soldiers occupied the wharves. Using direct military force, new private operators took over the terminals. The Salvadoran dock union was smashed. Efforts to reorganize it since have not only been broken, but the workers involved fired and blacklisted.
Acajutla employs approximately 1,200 workers, including 480 longshoremen. Until September 2001, their employer was the state port authority, CEPA, which owned the port property and administered terminal operations. The union for port workers, the Sindicato de la Industria Portuaria de El Salvador (the Union of the Port Industry of El Salvador), had a 50-year history of fighting for a fair standard of living in one of Latin America’s poorest countries.
As a result, longshoremen employed by CEPA had a union contract with a set wage for every job. Working two shifts a day, four days a week, dockers could make $125 per day or $25,000 a year. “The sons and daughters of people who couldn’t themselves read or write, humble people, were able to go to the university,” says Carlos David Marroquin, secretary-treasurer of the old longshore union, and a former warehouse worker.
“During the civil war we worked 12-hour shifts,” he adds, “unloading bombs and ammunition in very dangerous conditions. The government never complained about our willingness or ability to do the work.”
Union busting and privatization
Nevertheless, on Sept. 11, 2001, within hours of the attack on the twin towers in New York, the Salvadoran government moved troops into the port and the airport. El Salvador’s ruling party, a descendent of the rightwing ARENA party responsible for numerous death squad atrocities during that country’s civil war, cited the New York attacks as evidence of a terrorist threat that made the move necessary. Both port and airport were placed under military authority for the first time in Salvadoran history.
Sending soldiers to assure the port’s physical security was just the beginning of a much more ambitious plan. At the moment of the militarization, 38 port guards were immediately terminated. The following January 600-700 workers were fired. By May the last 240 workers were also terminated. On Jan. 23, the union was officially dissolved by government decree and thrown out of its office in the port. Union members haven’t been permitted back into their building since then.
When the union sought to protect the jobs of port workers, their union contract, and its own existence, Francisco Flores, then-president of El Salvador, called members “terrorists” and “guerrilleros.” That language may seem extreme in any country, but from 1978 to 1989 in El Salvador people so labeled were often picked up on the street, imprisoned, or just “disappeared.” The country has formally been at peace for over a decade since, but political killings still take place, and these epithets produce an atmosphere of fear and terror.
Port operations were privatized. Dockworkers are now employed by seven private companies who operate the terminals: OPSSA, COPESE, OyM, Neparsa, Remarsa, SYCSA and ServiPacific. Privatization was a gift from the Salvadoran government to at least one of the country’s wealthiest families — terminal operator OPSSA is owned by the family of Francisco Flores.
The government told workers they could reapply for their old jobs, but with the new private operators. “The told people they’d be liquidated, but they’d get jobs with the private operators,” Marroquin says. “But they didn’t say how much they’d be paid.” The new wage was $12 per day — cutting the daily income of longshoremen by more than 90 percent.
Workers organize, again
Following its gunpoint expulsion from the port, and its official dissolution, the longshore union made three attempts to reorganize.
On May 7, 2002, its leaders called a meeting of all former members working in the port. Salvadoran labor law stipulates that if 25 percent of the former members had attended, the union would have regained its legal status. But an atmosphere of fear had already been created by the presence of soldiers, the firings, and the dark implications of labeling activists as “terrorists.” To intensify the fear, the union’s former members were told by CEPA officials that if they went to the meeting, they would no longer be allowed to enter the port area, and would, therefore, lose their jobs.
Workers found the threat easy to believe. After disbanding the former union the port authority refused to permit 25 leaders to enter the port area, including Marroquin and Eduardo Fuentes Ordoñez, former chief grievance officer and dock worker. In this climate of intimidation, the required number of workers did not attend.
The next reorganization attempt was made in September 2003. During the election campaign that year, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), El Salvador’s left-wing electoral party and former guerilla movement, made a public commitment to demilitarize the port and recognize the union. FMLN deputies in the Salvadoran Congress tried to get these changes adopted by the National Assembly. The party publicly denounced the violations of labor rights in the port. But their proposal was only supported by the party’s own delegates, who were not a majority. After the election, no further effort was made to introduce legislation reinstating the union and its members.
“That’s when we decided to organize a new union,” Ordoñez explains.
On Dec. 6, 2004, 41 workers, all employed at the time by the terminal operators, signed a notarized document stating that they were constituting a new union, the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Industria Portuaria de El Salvador (the Union of the Workers in the Port Industry of El Salvador). They had a meeting to officially form the union. Under Salvadoran labor law, if 35 workers in the same industry sign such a statement, the union has the legal right to exist.
On Dec. 7, the workers presented the documents to the Ministry of Labor. On Dec. 13, the ministry notified the terminal operators that the legally required number of employees had signed documents forming a union.
On Dec. 14 the employers responded that the workers who had signed the petition were not employed by them. That morning, when those workers had presented themselves as usual, they had been denied work. The companies told them this was because they’d formed a union.
Finally, on Feb. 14, the Ministry of Labor denied legal status to the union, saying that the workers who signed the documents were not employed by the terminal operators. Since the firings, 36 of the 41 have been blacklisted by the terminal operators.
According to both current and former port workers, conditions have deteriorated, along with wages. In the course of eight hours, a crew of workers will unload 120 shipping containers, with a crew of four longshoremen, two lashers and one crane driver, who uses the crane on the ship. They say they don’t receive overtime pay, despite a law requiring an overtime premium after seven hours. There’s no fixed payday, and workers get paid 20-30 days after they work. Dockworkers are told they can’t eat during the workday, despite the requirement that employers provide a half-hour meal break. They sometimes have to work three straight shifts without eating, if the operator is in a hurry to unload and load a ship.
Salvadoran employers are also required to make payments to the social security health care system, including money deducted from workers’ wages. According to dockers, however, when they get sick and go to the social security hospital, they discover that the terminal operator employing them hasn’t made the payment, and instead has pocketed the money. Workers injured on the job have discovered they don’t have health insurance even for emergency, workplace injuries, and have to cover the doctor bills themselves.
The wharves are a high-risk environment, but dockworkers labor without gloves, hardhats, masks, safety belts, nets or even ladders. When they have to climb a stack of containers, they have to clamber up the sides of the boxes themselves, or a machine called a spreader hoists them up. They have to work in this dangerous way even when it’s raining. According to the blacklisted workers, one man, Manuel Manzilla, broke his leg while working on a Sunday morning in March. He wasn’t taken to the social security hospital, because, they say, the companies try to hide the people who get injured.
Jamie Newlyn, South Australian branch secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, interviewed the blacklisted longshoremen while investigating labor conditions in Central America for his union. “What has happened to these leaders, and to the rights and conditions of workers in Acajutla, would be a shock to longshore unions internationally, if they knew what has taken place,” he said. He predicted that the international network of dockworkers would take up the Salvadoran case. If other wharfside unions refuse to handle cargo bound to or from Acajutla, the government and terminal operators would feel enormous pressure to restore labor rights in the port.
This kind of international support is one answer unions are finding to the globalization of the free trade system. In the meantime, however, unions in El Salvador and Central America continue to look at Acajutla as a signpost, pointing to their own possible fate should CAFTA go into effect. That practically guarantees their opposition to the agreement will grow angry and increasingly desperate.
David Bacon is a California photojournalist, who documents labor, migration and globalization. His book, “The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border,” was published last year by University of California Press.