Economic Globalization, Neo-Liberal Reforms, and Costa Rican Banana Unions' Struggles - in a Context of Regulation*

By Engström, Johan | Ibero-americana, July 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Economic Globalization, Neo-Liberal Reforms, and Costa Rican Banana Unions' Struggles - in a Context of Regulation*


Engström, Johan, Ibero-americana


I. INTRODUCTION

A Worldwide Tendency

According to the contemporary discourse, the political and economic processes of neo-liberal policy implementation and economic globalization have characterized the 1980s and the 1990s. Following Jonsson (1998), this trend involve two major elements, namely the unrestricted mobility of capital and a political wave of reawakened market liberalism. One view is that the trade union movement now risks being eliminated as a social institution in large parts of the world, particularly in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Thomas 1995). One may naturally dispute the claim that there is a need to be alarmed by a development of this nature. My assumption is, however, that a key element of democracy is the relative equilibrium of class forces (Rueschemeyer, Stephens and Stephens 1995) and that trade unions remain the basic working class-institution (Southall 1988). In this article, I approach the issue by focussing on a particular case, namely the Costa Rican banana union.

A Problematic Development for Costa Rican Banana Unions

It is a common observation that Costa Rica has had a regionally exceptional political and economic development after its civil war in 1948, resulting in a comparatively stable and democratic1 society. There are however "flaws" in this picture: Since 1949, loopholes in the country's labor law have permitted private-sector employers to repress unionized workers (Espinoza 1985, Blanco Vado 1994). Although Costa Rica has ratified the ILO articles no. 87 and 98 and included them in its constitution workers in the country's private sector have lacked the fundamental rights to organize collectively, negotiate collective agreements, and to freely choose the association of their own liking2. The country's banana unions managed however, during the 1950s, -60s, and -70s, to increase their levels of organization and striking ability and to celebrate an unprecedented number of collective agreements with their employers (Cruz, de la. 1997). As we can see in figure 1, the tide turned drastically in the 1980s threatening the existence of the banana unions (Lara et al. 1995).

Could this rather drastic change of scenery in the 1980s be related to economic globalization and neo-liberal reforms? And if so, how then do banana unions cope with the new political and economic scenario? It is my view that when approaching the two questions above, "modes of regulation", concept elaborated by the French school of regulation, could prove to be a fruitful intermediate notion between political development and political struggle, furthermore I believe that "modes of accumulation", another regulationist concept, could be useful in understanding the link between economic and political development. As Lindström (1993) points out:

"The nature of workers struggles, in terms of forms and objectives, are set within the context of the openings and blockages that the modes of regulation provide by defining the field upon which struggles may be waged".

But before going into more detail I would like to point out two factors that complicate any effort to answer "Yes" to the former of the questions above. First, there were loopholes in the Costa Rican labor law that facilitated union repression prior to the 1980s, and second, the banana industry could perhaps be described as a globalized industry already by the end of the 19th century. The multinational corporation, United Fruit Company (UFCO) which was the predecessor of Chiquita and headquartered in the United States, and possessed enormous financial resources and political clout in both the US and Central America had divisions throughout Central America (Chomsky 1996). Its Costa Rican division represented only a small fraction of its operations.

In this paper my goal is to examine how economic globalization and neo-liberal reforms can be related to the virtual demise of the Costa Rican banana unions as well as to alterations in the forms and objectives of their struggles, in the period between 1980 and 1999. …

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