bolivia: the working class and the morales government

Bolivia’s trade unions are increasingly being incorporated into the state, but some sections of the labour movement are arguing for the re-affirmation of the historic goals of the working class and reclaiming the political indepedence of the unions faced with Evo Morales’ MAS government and the right.

by Enrique Ormachea

Since its foundation, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB – Bolivia’s main trade union federation) has incorporated into its political principles the central points of the Pulacayo Thesis, including the political independence of trade union organizations. Today, the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo) government of Evo Morales is trying to take absolute control of the union leaderships, with the objective of converting them into feeble bodies which cover for his ever more blatantly anti-working class and anti-peasant policies.


Much of the trade union leadership has been developing policies openly contrary to the principles of political independence upheld by Bolivian trade unionism, acting against even the resolutions of the last COB Congress.

After more than three years of Evo Morales in government we can say that the October 2003 and May 2005 [general strikes’] programmes have been cast aside by MAS, with the complicity of union leaders who have allowed a sort of “nationalization” of their organizations and who in the name of “the change agenda” have put the brakes on – and put on ice permanently – the needs and demands of the rank-and-file workers.

There are dissident voices

Union leaders in sectors like the La Paz teachers, the Huanuni miners, the Airports Services union and printing workers, among others, have been critical of the COB leadership. The executive secretary of the La Paz city teachers, José Luís Álvarez says that the current government, via perks and pay-offs, has done nothing but corrupt the unions and further still: “it has ended up controlling all the apparatus of the union federation”. But the most alarming result is that it has managed to convert the union leaders into a sort of dam holding back all the grassroots organisations’ demands for struggle.

In early May printing workers in El Alto decided to pull out of the El Alto COR [regional unit of the COB], arguing that its leaders “have changed this union into an agency of MAS, fumbling over the question of trade union independence”(1).

Another dissident voice is Jaime Ferreira, one of the Casa Obrera y Juvenil representatives in El Alto, attacking the “undermining of the programmatic, ideological and constitutional underpinnings of the COB. These mechanisms based on ‘special favours’ implemented by the state have sunk roots, and we are heading towards a type trade unionism which forgets about fighting for members”(2).

From the Pulacayo Thesis to the foundation of the COB

The Pulacayo Thesis(3) argued that the proletariat, even in a backward capitalist country like Bolivia, “is the revolutionary class in society par excellence”. That same class, in a revolutionary alliance with peasants, artisans and other parts of the petit-bourgeoisie, has the aim of carrying out the socialist revolution. Within this framework, it is necessary to fight head-on “against class collaborationism”, since collaborating with other classes means an abandonment of the objectives of the working class.

The thesis considered that workers cannot – and must not – solidarise with any government other than that of the workers themselves, since the capitalist state represents the interests of the bourgeoisie. For this reason, it says that when “unions are converted into appendices of the government, they lose their freedom of action and drag the masses down the path of defeat” it also says that trade union organizations must be politically independent “with respect to all sections of the ruling class, left reformism and the government”.

In this respect, Álvarez argues that the COB, since its foundation(4), has worked under the banner of the political principles of the Pulacayo Thesis, decisive in giving meaning to the creation and perspectives of the COB, “most centrally in the sense that it established itself as a working-class organisation with the perspective and possibility of working to transform capitalist society into a socialist one.”

The COB is a class organization

The COB’s Founding Congress(5) decided that one of its general principles was “To maintain the political independence – nationally and internationally – of the new organization of Bolivian workers, building links in solidarity with the workers of the world, in particular those of Latin America.”

Indeed, the Organising Statutes of the COB currently in effect count among their principles that “In the struggle for the national and social liberation of Bolivia and the demands of the workers it organizes and represents, [the COB] will not tolerate any interests contrary to those of the working class, nor will it renounce any method of struggle or legal means which help its members.”

It also reiterates among its principles “class proportional representation as to guarantee the hegemony of the proletariat in the structures and leadership bodies of the Central Obrera Boliviana”, arguing for the “independence of the COB as a class organization with regard to the government, political parties or other forms of sectional pressure amongst its ranks…”

Reclaim the October programme

For its part, the Political Declaration of the 14th Ordinary Congress of the COB(6),  taking place when MAS was already in government, (i) expressed the need to “… struggle for the programmes of the October 2003 and May-June 2005 [general strikes]”, understood to mean “the nationalization without compensation of the gas reserves, the recuperation of all natural resources and the abrogation of all neo-liberal laws and decrees”; (ii) considered it necessary to strengthen federation structures such as the Centrales Obreras of each department of Bolivia and the COB, “the basic organizations of the class”.

The same document established that “preserving our class political independence we will defend ourselves against the divisionism the government is trying – and will try – to use to win ground for certain groups’ interests, favouring – deliberately or not – the economic interests of the multi-nationals and imperialist capitalism”.

On 17th September 2008 the executive secretary of COB, Petro Montes, signed a deal with President Evo Morales in the name of the union, backing and calling for the defense of “the revolutionary change agenda” and rebutting the [right-wing] opposition governors(7). However, in Álvarez’s eyes, this alliance has only served to allow the MAS government “to defend in law the existence of private property, the large agricultural estates and the continuation of this capitalist society which organizes the economy so the bosses and multinationals can make huge profits by exploiting and stealing our natural resources”.

No more concessions

For the former executive secretary of the Central Obrera Departamental in Oruro, Miguel Zubieta, the task of the COB leadership is to re-orient and take up the objectives outlined in the October [2003 general strike’s] programme, (i) establishing collective workers’ control and (ii) taking back the natural resources for the Bolivian people, amongst other promises Morales is not fulfilling.

Álvarez believes that to reclaim the organization for the workers it is of vital importance to “expel representatives of the government and the right from the COB (…), since it should be a union organization allowing us to fight for better living conditions and jobs”.

This also means that workers have the task of reclaiming the class struggle principles of Bolivian trade unionism and making sure their organizations are politically independent from both the bosses’ organizations and parties and the – somewhat reformist – MAS government, which constantly makes concessions to the right at the expense of workers, peasants and indigenous people.

1. La Prensa, 23rd April 2009.
2. La Razón, 9th April 2009.
3. Passed by the first Special Congress of the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (miners’ union; FSTMB), which took place in 1946.
4. 17th April 1952.
5. This congress took place on the 16th-17th April 1952.
6.This congress took place from 19th-29th June 2006 in Viacha (La Paz).
7. La Razón, 22nd April 2009.