bolivia: the struggle for control of the unions

an Econoticias Bolivia editorial

La Paz, 30th April 2009 – the combative Bolivian working class has begun its May Day celebrations in the midst of a hard-fought struggle among the leadership of the Central Obrera Boliviana [the main union federation – COB], which has begun to fight actively as part of the ranks of the pro-indigenous government of president Evo Morales, whilst the radical miners’ and teachers’ unions are fighting to defend an independent class-struggle position and initiate a struggle over workers’ demands.

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Some believe that the unions should forget, at least for the moment, the poverty and exploitation workers suffer, putting their economic and social demands on hold in order to back the indigenous government which is working to humanise capitalism and make it fairer, and which is also confronted by the oligarchy and the fascists. Others argue in reply that workers must win back their independence, putting the brakes on mounting exploitation and taking back the agenda of October [2003’s general strike], smashing the power of the oligarchy by taking over the mines, factories and agricultural estates.

The former accuse the latter of being the “left wing of the oligarchy” and an instrument of imperialism trying to bring down the “people’s government” of Evo Morales. The latter, for their part, accuse the former of having betrayed working-class struggle and having been assimilated into bourgeois democracy, abandoning the revolutionary camp and allowing workers to lose some of their wages and become impoverished at the same time as there is a bonanza in the state’s coffers and the bosses’ profits are soaring.

Conflict in the streets

As the most visible side of this conflict, several sections of the Central Obrera de Oruro, miners’ unions, some manufacturing unions and the La Paz urban education workers’ union have begun to demand the resignation of the main COB leader, Pedro Montes, who they accuse of having betrayed the principles of revolutionary unionism for the benefit of an indigenous government pushing so-called “Andean capitalism” and which has become an ally of the big multinationals who still keenly exploit natural resources and cheap local man-power.

“Pedro Montes has become a sort of subaltern of Evo Morales, only defending the President and not the interests of the workers” declared the Trotskyist urban teachers’ union leader Vilma Plata, who explained the resolutions of a meeting of workers in the sector which urged the COB to remove its leader, who according to the statutes already finished his mandate in June 2008.

The teachers’ conference furthermore demanded from the Morales government a salary increase linked to family living costs, permanent jobs, a pensions system financed by the bosses and the state, as well as the resignation of Montes.

This demand, however, did not make much impression on the COB leadership, which is actively campaigning to secure the re-election of President Morales in December 2009’s vote. Among the majority of the unions in the cities and in the countryside, leadership functions have fallen into the hands of trade unionists who have cosied up to the government – some through political conviction, others through financial temptations and positions in the state apparatus. Many of them are currently running their own campaigns to be included in the pro-government candidate lists for the December elections, and for this reason are using this May Day to demonstrate the “political weight” they have and their ability to mobilise the union rank-and-file for President Morales, just like the aforementioned COB leader.

Pressure and co-optation

Montes, a miners’ leader who took over the union leadership in June 2006, at first declared himself “independent” and promised to defend the “class independence” of the workers, rebuffing the first government attempts to convert the COB into an appendage of the ruling party.

However, since early 2008, Montes has integrated the unions of the Central Obrera into the Coordinadora Nacional por el Cambio [Conalcam; National Co-ordination for Change], the political-trade union wing of Evo Morales’ governing Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS).

During this process the COB leadership has abandoned all of the workers’ offensive struggles and threatened grassroots unions that if they did not openly support President Morales they would be declared to be “the right wing opposition”, put in front of a tribunal and then expelled.

This stance generated firm resistance and repulsion among the union leaders who had not been co-opted by MAS. “Who is he [Pedro Montes] to call us members of the opposition? We must be clear, we are not of the opposition, all we want is to keep our ideological independence with respect to the government, and all the more so as regards the right”, said Víctor López, leader of the Central Obrera de Oruro – controlled by the miners – recalling that Bolivian workers had always fought against the right and against neo-liberalism, capitalism and imperialism.

The principal workers’ leader in Oruro, Jaime Solares, furthermore warned that “Pedro Montes should be put before a tribunal for betraying the working class and portraying the workers’ organisation [the COB] as if it were a political party within the Movimiento al Socialismo”.

“He [Montes] knows full well that we have a congress soon and that in past years it has been said that no-one should compromise the organisation of the working class.  For this reason he should be judged by a disciplinary tribunal”, said Solares.

Political independence

Among others who do not trust the current COB leadership nor Morales, are the combative mining workers’ unions, the political and ideological vanguard of the Bolivian working class.

According to Guido Mitma, executive secretary of the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (Fstmb), President Morales “abandoned the agenda of October” 2003, when the people mounted an insurrection and brought down the neoliberal governments of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa. “We do not share the policies of MAS – rather, we must insist that the government carries out the programme of October and the structural reforms demanded by the Bolivian people.

The aforementioned October agenda included the nationalisation without compensation of the rich gas and oil reserves and the mines, the expulsion of multinationals, expropriation of the huge agricultural estates, the jailing of the genocidal neo-liberal governors and improvements in the living and working conditions of the impoverished Bolivian people.

The miner Mitma did not rule out the possibility that the next Ordinary Congress of the COB will decide to form a workers’ party representing the historic economic and social interests of the working class, in concord with the October agenda and in open struggle against the oligarchy and the fascists. “We have always had this in mind, following the thesis of Pulacayo – workers and peasants to power, forming a political wing […] to defend the interests of the Bolivian people, not like what Evo Morales is doing”.

Fascist terror

In this struggle for control of the unions, President Morales, MAS and the COB leadership have in recent days been trying to capitalise on the recent unfurling of a plot by an international group of fascist terrorists who were organising to secure by force the independence of Santa Cruz, the region in the east of the country which has been de facto abandoned for the last two years to the control of the oligarchy and the 100 powerful family clans who own the land and big business.

Linked to the multinationals and under the tutelage of the US Embassy, this settler oligarchy and the 100 clans, who had been forced into a corner and feared losing their privileges during the masses’ onslaught of 2003-2005, have begun to regain strength thanks to the hesitating and conciliatory policies of Morales. Today, they control the east and part of the southern valleys, almost half the country (Santa Cruz, Beni, Tarija and part of Chuquisaca and Pando).

The government stance of respect for private property, the multi-million dollar oil contracts, the huge agricultural estates and the new Constitution’s guarantee of all the privileges and franchises of the oligarchy have breathed new life into the racist oligarchy and the 100 clans, the source of strength for fascism and far-right terrorism.

For their part, the radical unions who question Morales and the COB leadership believe that the only way to finish off the fascists is to smash the power of the oligarchy, denying them control of the land, the mines and natural resources.

On the other side, the trade unionists loyal to Morales make use of the fascist terror to silence all criticism of the government, in order to unite all social movements and working-class forces in defence of the President and to strengthen their grip on the COB.

Behind the perks and pay-offs

“All governments try to control the Central Obrera, but this time the difference is that the leaders are doing it in a more barefaced way, using the workers’ and popular movements to secure high offices and then acting against their interests. This is the case with the Minister of Labour, Calixto Chipana, who used to make very radical interventions in conferences and who we now see as a Minister; he has forgotten all the demands of the section of workers he represented”, said José Luis Alvarez, one of the teachers’ leaders.

Earlier this year the manufacturing workers led by Chipana protested in front of the Ministry of Labour demanding the resignation of the then Minister Wálter Delgadillo, throwing tomatoes and eggs at the building. On 9th February their leader Chipana joined Evo Morales’ cabinet.

Something similar happened with the Central Obrera de El Alto under the control of Edgar Patana, who went from being an “independent” to “signed up with MAS”. Early in the year this leader decided to extend his own union mandate, which according to the statutes was already over, saying that he would remain in charge until December to secure Morales’ electoral success.

The situation with agricultural workers is no better than in the COB. “The punishment for those who do not agree with the government is expulsion. We had one representative, Felipe Machaca [who held the post of general secretary of the COB, the second most important after Pedro Montes’ executive role], but they expelled him. The same happened with Rufo Calle, who was forcibly displaced”, said the mallku [Aymara leader] Felipe Quispe, who was alongside the miner Solares one of the principal actors in the downfall of the genocidal ex-president Sánchez de Lozada in 2003.