Uruguay's Labor Movement in Disarray

By Gaudin, Andres | NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs, November 12, 2010 | Go to article overview

Uruguay's Labor Movement in Disarray


Gaudin, Andres, NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs


After a half century of monolithic unity that allowed Uruguay's only trade union federation, the Plenario Intersindical de Trabajadores-Convencion Nacional de Trabajdores (PIT-CNT), to emerge intact from the 12-year (1973-1985) dictatorship, a fissure has opened in the labor organization. Along with certain practices, which were not supported by the country's union history or by the majority of its the rank and file, that arose in some of the smaller unions, an alliance of those same groups is now fomenting the confrontation between salaried workers and the Frente Amplio (FA) government, dragging with it the entire union movement.

On March 1, when President Jose Mujica, the second-consecutive FA president, took office, he was backed by a number of parties and groups in which, although not officially and without formally becoming part of the administration structure, the federation was always one of the administration's pillars.

However, in the seven months between Mujica's swearing-in and Oct. 7, the PIT-CNT has called four half-day work shutdowns and a 24-hour general strike that have managed to damage the image of the government at home and abroad. Beyond the federation's incoherent attitude that Uruguayans still do not understand--which explains why the Oct. 7 work stoppage did not have the massive support of most previous strikes in the country's history--the government has obviously been shaken by the situation.

On Oct. 28 a new and powerful warning light went off when it became known that four multinational automotive and food companies--two Japanese, one Chinese, and one Mexican--said that, if the present level of conflict continues, they will pull their installations out and transfer them to another country in the region.

History of labor movement in Uruguay

A little history helps explain the situation. The Uruguayan labor movement emerged in the early 1900s, with the arrival of new ideas brought by European anarchist and socialist immigrants to the Rio de la Plata. Although, as time went by, the major unions came to be led by militants of the Partido Comunista and Partido Socialista, with the new anarchists and a small social-Christian sector finding a home in some smaller unions, the federation never adopted a purely partisan stance. Ideologically, however, it was always part of what was commonly known as "the left" and had very precise positions, such as the unconditional defense of the Cuban Revolution, freedoms, and human rights in all countries; solidarity with those suffering political persecution from Latin American dictatorships; and an active participation in policies supporting integration, the environment, and natural resources.

Scholars point to two distinct threads in the labor movement. First is the leadership's enormous negotiating capacity with which it maintained its unity throughout the decades. (Uruguay is the only country where there has never been, in the last 50 years, more than one labor federation.) Second is having been able to balance the struggle to increase wages with the struggle to meet labor demands. Defending wages and improving working conditions have been constants, without either overshadowing the other.

Until early in this century, federation leadership was basically in the hands of communists and socialists. Beginning in 2005, and especially in the state and municipal employees unions, some small but extremely active groups emerged that analysts identified as close to the Trotskyite factions.

Many scholars now observe that the sectors that managed to line up the PIT-CNT in a confrontation with the government--not wanted by the vast majority in the country--claimed to be promoting structural change, but their struggle is purely economicist. It does not go beyond activism in favor of salary increases and other conquests, important but sectoral (health plans, student scholarships, child-care centers).

For example, the Oct. …

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