The last two weeks have seen a series of general strikes in Bolivia, both called by the ‘official’ union federation COB and organised on the impulse of manufacturing workers and teachers. The workers are demanding a pay increase above the 5% figure advanced by Evo Morales’ left-populist government.
With occupations and some workers going on hunger strike for over a week, and police repression which has seen two deaths and thirty injuries (as well as the arrest of fifteen people occupying the Ministry of Work), the struggle is hard-fought. In this article Martín Camacho of Socialismo o Barbarie looks at the background to the struggle.
“You waste time and at times get fed up listening to the protests, accusations, attempts to humiliate you: rather than watching the news on TV, I prefer to watch football, baseball, some sports, or else I’d get depressed.” (Evo Morales comments on the strike to the Venezuelan press)
The last few weeks have seen mobilisations in Bolivia such as we have not seen for several years. This is the first general strike against Evo Morales and vice-president Alvaro García Linera. This is the first time in five years we have had a wave of working class struggles to disrupt the Movimiento al Socialismo government.
This is a strike for wages (the government has offered a meagre 5% increase for the year) and against the anti-working class Labour Code reform, but it is not only an economic affair: it verges on struggle in the political sphere.
Of course, it is a test of fire for a working class only beginning to rise. The discontent seen after the 4th April elections (where the MAS government did not do as well as expected) seems to have opened the way for demands for a more substantial increase in living standards, for the first time seeing complaints against the MAS government from wide sections of the working class.
The time for promises is over. People are starting to lose patience with a government which talks of “socialism”… but which in fact is following more or less the same old path as bourgeois governments before.
The events of 1st May were key to getting a full view of the situation in the country. First and foremost, the President was not in the capital La Paz. Secondly, the leadership of the Central Obrera Boliviana union federation were not in the streets either…
What does this mean? That in the marches of recent days there had been obvious discontent with the ministers of government as well as the COB leader Pedro Montes. The Minister of Work Carmen Trujillo was condemned for the new Labour Code bill. The COB was also complicit in this. Although putting forward an “alternative” law, it worked with the government to “make more viable” the contents of the two bills, implemented on the backs of the working class.
A “popular” government playing at neoliberalism
When they heard of the government’s resolve to increase wages by a mere 5%, manufacturing workers at once demanded a greater increase and set to the fightback. Remember that this sector had already mobilised against the Labour Code. This was the basis for their 1st May protests and the 24-hour general strike three days later.
With government opposition, there came ever-more sharply felt pressure. The government rejected the 12% increase proposed by the workers for two reasons. First, the government said that it had to “invest in the country’s productive forces” and that “there is not enough money to pay for such an increase”… the typical excuse of any capitalist government: the money “isn’t there”, and if it is “it’s for something else”. Of course, the purchase of a presidential plane ($40 million) has nothing to do with it…
Another increasingly common response is that “we have to preserve the country’s economic stability and avoid inflation”. This is a common refrain of neoliberal governments, today repeated by Economics Minister Arce Catacora.
It is totally untrue that salary increases are the cause of inflation: what’s more, the cause is super-inflated company profits! But the MAS government has opportunistically used the story of the UDP government in the 1980s (a “progressive” capitalist government who, not taking measures against the capitalists, collapsed amid hyper-inflation) to strike fear into the hearts of the general population, as to isolate the working class. This is the government’s game: divide and rule, keep lying a little longer.
5% – not enough for anyone
Beyond these “explanations”, the numbers don’t lie: 5% increase means only 32 bolivianos (£3) a month. For the family shopping basket, this is equivalent to a kilo of meat. The government stance is pretty low: if the workers’ salaries went up any more, “it would endanger the Dignidad pension scheme, the Juancito Pinto child education vouchers or the Juana Azurduy benefits for pregnant women”. Here benefits for students and the retired are invoked to divide people with jobs from peasants and inactive workers. This kind of divisionism has a history in Bolivia, and points to the anti-working class character of the Morales government. So that there is no doubt left as to what it means, we need only listen to deputy minister Gustavo Torrico: “if they haven’t enough money, let them live on bread and coffee”.
How can this person, whose salary is more than 14,000 bolivianos (£1,400) a month imagine what it is like to be a worker who cannot buy enough to eat for their kids?
Strictly speaking, the government’s proposed 5% increase is a “bottom-line”. The workers are meant to go and fight the bosses for a bigger increase, as if it were an entirely separate issue. That the Ministry of Work would only intervene to pass judgement on a miserable increase… is clearly a manoeuvre to keep a lid on all workers’ rises.
Indeed, what unions are asking for beyond this 5% figure is not sufficient either. Even the 12% demand of manufacturing workers or teachers’ demand for 25% cannot pay for the family shopping basket. The fact is wages have always been bad: whether inflation rises or not, we are always below the breadline, which is why there is so much malnutrition. People talk and talk about better living standards but the government is not prepared to guarantee it. Already four years of talk of “change” has passed: and they go on saying the same. In this respect, the vice-president García Linera said “please, you must understand, the government is not trying to hurt anyone. It is not about bad faith, but merely to guarantee the balanced development of our economy”. We heard this from so many governments before that today no-one believes it any more.
The COB’s role in suppressing the awakening movement
The COB’s role was to ward off the whole movement, but this was challenged by wide layers of workers. Starting with the manufacturing workers who demanded the union Executive’s resignation, this started to bear real pressure: each day there was more discontent with the Central Obrera. This became so sharp that the COB had to call a national council, which advocated a rising scale of 24, then 48, then 72-hour walkouts, and then a general strike. There was an apparent distancing of the COB from the government: but it was later shown to be a manoeuvre to beat back the mass mobilisation.
On Thursday 6th May there was another national council to decide what to do next and evaluate the general strike of 4th May. The strike had been a success, and the government had to use all its police might to suppress the manufacturing workers. There was soon much condemnation of the struggle. But the discontent kept growing. More and more voices were raised against the ministers of Economics, Work and of the Presidency.
The national council decided to “suspend” the subsequent rising scale of strikes… and go direct to an “indefinite” general strike from 10th May and a march on La Paz from Caracollo (183 km). This was an attempt to break the strike, since everyone knew this would not work. We repeat: the posture of an “indefinite” general strike is an attempt to undermine the movement since they know that they cannot guarantee a turnout for a march to La Paz.
To all this, the vice-president García Linera, recently feted as he visited Argentina, warned that “I do not doubt that behind this there may be agents of the US embassy to try – because they could not do it with a coup or the recall referendum or by assassination – to use the workers’ just demands to obtain a right-wing and counter-revolutionary political upheaval”…
This is the classic talk of progressive bourgeois government when workers start to fight for what’s theirs: label them “agents of the right-wing”, coup-mongerors.
The COB sells out the struggle upon the government’s first offer
When the government offered an “improvement” to the Pensions Bill, the COB called another meeting and agreed to call off the protests. The proposal offered was to reduce the retirement age by two years, which would now mean 58 years old. The pension fund would come from a 0.5% employee contribution, 3% from the employer and also a government contribution. To add a little extra division, workers who have been down the mines for five years or more can retire at 51, dividing the class in two.
This was approved in an emergency union council in Pandero, where the march was put on hold. There was a confrontation between teachers and manufacturing workers (who were holding captive the minister of the Presidency Óscar Coca and the deputy minister of Government Co-ordination Wilfredo Chávez) on one side, and on the other side the miners, who rescued the also-detained COB leaders… as well as the government functionaries.
The other government argument is that the increase should not be “proportional”: a 3% increase for those earning over 1,000 bolivianos (£100) a month and 8% for those who earn less. This means, pure and simple, a redivision of poverty dividing workers.
Down with the ministers Arce, Trujillo and Llorenti
So we say that the struggle must continue. Those responsible must go, as well as the COB traitors. The struggle must grow in strength, together with the manufacturing workers who today refuse to recognise the COB leadership, who disarm the workers and only listen to the government. The salary increase should be in line with the cost of living. The struggle also has to go beyond an economic dispute and take on a concrete political character, against this government which lies and lies, and favour instead a government which truly represents workers and the population. This is the only way we can achieve better living standards.