NEW YORK — Ricardo Monge, head of the health care workers union in El Salvador, described struggles against privatization of health and medical facilities in his country. Claudia Lopez from Bolivia’s Union of Factory Workers told of the fight against privatization of the water supply in Bolivia.

These union leaders from El Salvador and Bolivia riveted their New York audience with stories of their life-and-death struggles against transnational corporations. Labor representatives from Brazil, Kenya, Norway, Senegal, Spain and South Africa, as well, met with U.S. trade unionists in a day-long conference on sustainable development and the environment, sponsored by the Cornell Global Labor Institute April 18.

During a nine-month strike in El Salvador in 2003, workers, students and people from the “middle-class sectors” all took to the streets to demonstrate against privatization and the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

Companies are converting health care into a commodity for profits, Monge said, and soon “the state will be at the mercy of the transnational interests [and] only people with lots of money will be able to afford health care.”

So far, this movement, led by the tenacious members of the health care union, Sindicato de Trabajadores del Instituto de Seguro Social Salvadoreno (STISSS), has prevented three privatization projects. This is only one battle in a long and dangerous war, Monge warned, and the cessation of privatization attempts is only temporary. He noted that his co-workers are “sleeping with one eye open.”

Transnationals, he said, are out to “destroy unions and collective bargaining agreements.”

During El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, Monge said, 150 workers were assassinated, hundreds more forced into exile, many tortured and imprisoned.

“Falling martyrs deserve our respect,” he said, “and we will never forget them and we will never give up!”

Lopez gave a stirring account of her union’s struggle — “la guerra del agua” — to prevent the corporate giant, Bechtel, from privatizating the water system. In slides of the latest demonstration, a gigantic banner across a public building declared: “El agua es nuestra — Carajo!” (“The water is ours — damn it!”).

Lopez said the water war has resulted in “a new epoch” in Bolivia in terms of struggle. Youth, women, children, elders and workers — rural and urban — are “spontaneously” coming together to fight for a common purpose. She noted that this is truly a fight for survival. La Guerra del Agua, she said, is an “uprising in self-defense.”