Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Peruvian Politics and Eight-Hour Day: Rethinking the 1919 General Strike

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Peruvian Politics and Eight-Hour Day: Rethinking the 1919 General Strike

Article excerpt

PERUVIAN POLITICS AND THE EIGHT-HOUR DAY: RETHINKING THE 1919 GENERAL STRIKE

Demanding that their workday be limited to a maximum of eight hours, workers in Lima and Callao initiated a general strike on 13 January 1919. The movement succeeded in surprisingly short order: only two days later, Peru's president, Jose Pardo y Barreda, issued a decree giving the eight-hour day to workers in state-owned industries, and to all those in the private sector who could not otherwise arrive at an agreement with their employers. Since that moment, the 1919 general strike has come to be seen as a watershed for the Peruvian working class: its "trial by fire," the end of its organizational prehistory, in effect, the dawn of a new age. Even today, this vision of the eight-hour day as a defining landmark continues to dominate Peruvian labour historiography.(1)

The January 1919 general strike resonates so deeply for two reasons. First, the eight-hour day forms a part of the heraldry of organized labour worldwide, a legacy of Chicago's notorious Haymarket dots of 1886. Second, the eight-hour movement figures centrally in the mythologies of both the Communist party and APRA, the two political movements with the strongest historical ties to Peruvian workers. Most scholars on the left have seen the general strike as a defining moment of working-class formation, the first time that militants directed the labour movement as a whole, and the first time that modern industrial workers rather than artisans took centre stage. In other words, the eight-hour movement was not only a major victory for labour, but also a signal that the advance of capitalism had transformed Peru's economic base, and a new kind of working class, more revolutionary in character, had come of age.(2) For APRA, arguably the most influential "populist" movement in Latin American history, the 1919 general strike was momentous because it inaugurated the political career of the party's charismatic founder, Victor Raul Haya de la Torre. As a leader in the University of San Marcos, Haya de la Torre brought student support to the strike and acted as an intermediary in negotiations between the workers and the government. According to an Aprista version of history, the events of January 1919 proved instrumental in forging Peru's historical alliance of students and labour - the "United Front of Manual and Intellectual Workers" - the very essence of official Aprismo.(3)

Yet the heroic aura surrounding the eight-hour movement in Peru, and the partisan battles that inform so much of the writing on the topic, have generated a number of misconceptions. Most problematic is the lack of attention accorded to President Pardo's reasons for accepting the strikers' demands. Leftist and Aprista versions of the story concur in the assumption that Pardo had no choice. Faced with an overwhelming show of force, confronting a national emergency of unprecedented proportions, he simply capitulated. This interpretation is clearly incomplete. In fact, Jose Pardo had a number of compelling reasons for seeking a negotiated solution, and the much-touted "conquest" of the eight-hour day was by no means an unambiguous victory for workers.

I

The idea that the strike of January 1919 marked an entirely new era in Peruvian working-class history appears compelling, at least on the surface. Before 1919, few of Lima's workers belonged to any labour organization, and those who did tended to join mutual aid societies or religious brotherhoods called cofradias.(4) The typical mutual aid society was led by a master artisan who owned his own shop or perhaps worked as a foreman. These leaders enjoyed power and respectability, many had ties to one faction or another of the ruling Civil party, and some held local office. The societies often reproduced the vertical social relations of the workplace, and resembled corporate guilds more than trade unions or pressure groups. Indeed, as late as November 1918, a U. …

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